By Jay Watson
For four centuries, the Black community in New Jersey has been helping shape the state’s history, culture, arts, sciences, government, educational and religious institutions, and business and industry. For just as long, Black residents have been seeking equality, justice and an end to racism.
From north to south, this state we’re in is filled with places where significant events in Black history took place.
Some are well known, like the museum in Cape May honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and the stadium in Paterson that housed the first professional Black baseball leagues. But many are obscure, known to few outside their immediate area.
Thanks to a bill recently signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, it will soon be easier to visit places that can help illuminate stories of the Black experience that have gone largely untold.
The bill creates the Black Heritage Trail, which will lead visitors on a winding journey throughout the state, using historic markers to describe the contributions of notable Black residents and institutions.
The bipartisan bill was proposed by Cape May County Assemblyman Antwan McClellan and passed unanimously in both chambers of the state Legislature. It enables the creation of a Black Heritage Trail Commission, which will be given a $1 million budget to choose the sites, design and place the markers, and promote the trail.
“This trail will highlight Black abolitionists, veterans, artists, entertainers and other leaders who have made their indelible marks on New Jersey’s history and deserve to be recognized and celebrated,” said McClellan in a statement.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the Black Heritage Trail is expected to boost tourism and provide an unparalleled educational resource.
Visitors will be able to download itineraries and maps for a trip of up to three days to tour a multitude of landmarks, heritage sites, museums and attractions.
Here are a few must-see places:
• Cape May – The Harriet Tubman Museum opened in 2021 to honor the civil rights icon who escaped slavery and helped bring dozens of other enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Tubman lived and worked in Cape May for a period of time to raise funds to support her missions;
• Paterson – Hinchliffe Stadium, currently undergoing renovations, is one of the last surviving Negro League venues from the early 1900s. It is where Larry Doby, a city native and baseball Hall of Fame member, spent his formative years before becoming the first Black player in the American League in 1947;
• Lawnside – This town in Camden County, founded in 1840, is the first incorporated and self-governed Black municipality north of the Mason-Dixon Line;
• Red Bank – This is the town where legendary jazz musician, bandleader and composer William James “Count” Basie was raised and learned to play piano. There is now a thriving performing arts center named in his honor;
• Atlantic City – The city best known for casinos and nightlife has a long Black history. In the era of segregation, Black families who wanted to swim in the ocean had to go to “Chicken Bone Beach,” now a famed location. Today, Atlantic City also has a Civil Rights Garden and an African American Heritage Museum.
These are only a fraction of the state’s significant and fascinating Black heritage sites.
There is also the Afro-American Historical Society Museum in Jersey City; the African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers in Tenafly; the Macedonian African Methodist Episcopal Church and Butler Cemetery in Camden; the Perth Amboy gravesite of Thomas Mundy Peterson, who was the first Black man in America to vote in an election; and the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains, which was the first Black-owned golf and country club in the United States.
A few lesser-known Black heritage sites that should be part of the trail include the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Montgomery Township; Marshalltown, a settlement in Mannington Township where free land-owning African-Americans prospered throughout the 19th century; Timbuctoo in Westampton Township, a 19th century settlement believed to have been founded by escaped slaves; and the Medford Township office of Dr. James Still, a renowned herbalist and homeopathic healer known as “The Black Doctor of the Pines.”
“The inclusion of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) in New Jersey’s Black Heritage Trail represents an important acknowledgement of the history of African American communities in the Sourland region, spanning from times of enslavement to the present, and their substantial contributions to the cultural and economic development of central New Jersey,” said Donnetta Johnson, the museum’s executive director.
“Including the Dr. James Still Historic Office Site to the Black Heritage Trail would be awesome and much deserved,” said historian Samuel Still, a descendant of Dr. Still, noting that it is the only historic site in the state park system named after an African American.
Other candidates include the Red Bank home of T. Thomas Fortune, a leading African-American journalist and civil rights advocate in the early 1900s; the school in Trenton at the center of a 1940s New Jersey Supreme Court decision ending segregation; and a Bordentown school for Blacks once known as the “Tuskegee of the North.”
This legislation and funding are a great start for highlighting and connecting these places, but we must also continue to seek ways and means to protect, restore and manage these important places that have contributed to who we are as a state and nation.
New Jersey is one of America’s most diverse states and the Black Heritage Trail will spotlight the Black community’s achievements and contributions, as well as its trials and tribulations. In the state’s quest for equity, unity and inclusion, this type of educational tourism is needed and welcomed.
Much of the groundwork for the Black Heritage Trail has already been laid. Last year, the state Division of Travel and Tourism created a website with a preliminary list of sites; see them at https://visitnj.org/Black-Heritage
Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.