By Jay Watson
“New Jersey is the Garden State. We’re known for our blueberries, we’re known for our corn, we’re known for our peaches. But we’re not known for the slaves that were here tilling the soil, we’re not known for the whole history of slavery right here, and how slavery was the underpinning of much of the wealth of New Jersey.”
So begins Beverly Mills, a direct descendant of an enslaved man, Friday Truehart, who was brought to the Sourland Mountains of central New Jersey from South Carolina as a teen in the late 1700s. After laboring without pay for a Baptist minister and his son for many years, Friday gained his freedom and eventually became one of the first African American landowners in the region.
Beverly Mills relates the story of her fourth great-grandfather in “The Price of Silence,” a documentary bringing to light untold stories of slavery and how it shaped the landscapes, institutions, finances and families of this state we’re in.
“The Price of Silence” was produced by Truehart Productions, a nonprofit founded in 2019 to educate the public about racial disparities that existed – and still exist – in our state and country. As the documentary notes, New Jersey’s history of slavery isn’t widely known, even among people who have spent their entire lives in the state.
“I think your average New Jerseyan still does not understand that slavery existed in this state,” says Linda Caldwell Epps, Ph.D., a Black historical researcher and consultant on the film. Despite having grown up in New Jersey, she noted, “Never once, in elementary or high school, did I learn anything at all about the enslavement of people in the state.”
New Jersey fought with the North during the Civil War, which may be one reason many of today’s residents don’t equate it with slavery. But enslavement was prevalent for 200 or more years before that.
The first slaves, stolen from Africa, were brought to New Jersey in the early 1600s by Dutch colonists, a practice later continued by the British. Slave ships docked at many ports along the Delaware River and at the Perth Amboy waterfront. Enslaved people were put to work on farms throughout the state, and also in ports and cities.
The Concessions and Agreements of 1664 encouraged and rewarded slavery by granting land to settlers according to the number of slaves and servants they had. Settlers could receive up to 150 acres for each adult enslaved person, creating the potential for large farms to be amassed by those with the most slaves.
During the Revolutionary War, enslaved people fought for both sides; the British promised freedom for those who ran away from their enslavers to fight for the Crown.
By 1801, New Jersey had an enslaved population estimated at about 12,000 people. New Jersey officially abolished slavery in 1804, but it was a gradual process of emancipation. In reality, many African Americans remained enslaved until after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Epps, New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery, and was “probably the northern state with the strongest sympathies toward the South.” New Jersey had a lucrative trade relationship with the South, building wealth by selling leather goods, maritime equipment and other manufactured items.
Records of enslaved people were poorly kept, erasing their identities and robbing their descendants of knowledge about their ancestry.
Beverly Mills, for example, had always heard she had an ancestor named Friday. She learned more about him only because his mother, Dinah, was mentioned in the diary of Oliver Hart, the minister who enslaved him.
“She was thought of as dollars and cents, not as a person,” she noted. Likewise with Friday Truehart, who was listed among Oliver Hart’s possessions in his will. That will eventually give Friday his freedom – but only after he was passed down to Oliver Hart’s son.
Friday Truehart went on to become the patriarch of one of the founding Black families in the Sourland Mountain-Hopewell Valley region, a source of pride for Mills. “We’ve been here since colonial times,” she said.
Mills and her friend Elaine Buck co-wrote the book, “If These Stones Could Talk,” about the African American history of the Sourlands-Hopewell Valley region. They also founded the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) in Skillman, housed in a 19th century AME Church located on Hollow Road and the Rock Brook.
Efforts are underway to preserve other lands along the Rock Brook to support the museum’s programs and protect the historic character of the site. Last year, the farmstead of Spencer True, a descendant of Friday Truehart, was permanently preserved as part of the museum.
February is Black History Month, an excellent time to learn more about New Jersey’s slave history and the systemic racism that followed. “We’ve struggled all the way up until civil rights, and we’re still struggling today because of what happened to us as enslaved individuals,” said Epps.
As we all know, any version of history depends on whose perspective is used in the telling. Stories of Black Americans that have been hidden too long are now being told.
As a proud board member of Truehart Productions, I heartily recommend watching “The Price of Silence.”
“I think the reason the film is so powerful is that when we set out on our journey to reveal the vastly unknown existence of slavery in New Jersey, we found ourselves in a place where we felt we couldn’t have this discussion without also revealing the disparities that exist today between the Black and White communities as a result of that enslavement,” said Ridgeley Hutchinson, president of Truehart Productions.
Both parts of the documentary are available to view online through PBS.
Another great documentary to watch is “Descendant,” the story of the last known ship to smuggle stolen Africans to America – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2M8ESS9hSAQ&t=41s&ab_channel=Netflix.
For more information about preserving land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.