A Slice of Life: African American families share stories of deep roots in Hopewell Valley

Evelyn Brooks (center) speaks about her family experiences in Hopewell Valley.

Panelist, 102, offers sound advice ‘If you don’t do, you won’t do, so therefore do it.’

African American history runs deep in Hopewell Valley.

Residents and families were able to hear first-hand accounts – good and bad – from four panelists representing three founding African American families with deep family histories in Hopewell Valley during a panel discussion on Feb. 4 at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington.

“We realized people have a desire to hear history from the perspective of the average person. They don’t always want a historian,” said Catherine Fulmer-Hogan, president of Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum and moderator of the panel discussion.

The panelists – Evelyn Brooks, representing the Brooks family, Ronald Clark, representing the Clark family, and Suzen Witcher and Angela Witcher-Harrison, who represented the Witcher family – talked about their experiences attending the Hopewell Valley schools, the impact of Black churches on building community, preserving family history and what it was like in the 1960s.

Brooks, 102, is the matriarch of the Brooks family that lived for about 40 years in Hopewell Township on Mountain Church Road.

Evelyn Brooks (center) speaks about her family experiences in Hopewell Valley.

She also lived for more than 20 years in Hopewell Borough with her late husband Ira Brooks. She has 10 children.

“All 10 of my children went to Hopewell Elementary School and also here in the schools in Pennington. I am very proud that I fought for my children in high school,” Brooks said.

Brooks said in the 1960s and 1970s she thought the teachers at Hopewell Valley Central High School were not “thoughtful” enough.

“I don’t know whether it was the Board of Education or just the teachers themselves, but a lot of them looked at you and figured you were not able to do what you were supposed to do,” she said.

That is why she “fought so hard for my children.”

“When I went to school back in the 1930s, people of color were not allowed to take college courses at all,” she said. “You had to take a business course, well if you took a business course what business was going to hire you. You ended up doing housework.”

Brooks praise the fact that she was fortunate enough to be raised by a person who taught her that she could do anything.

“These were the things I taught my children, that they could do anything that they were able to do,” she further said. “I know I am 102, but to this day I still believe that anybody can do anything that they want to do. They just have to get out there and do it.”

Brooks noted that her motto is “If you don’t do, you won’t do, so therefore do it.”

Suzen Alberta Witcher and Angela Lynn Witcher, daughters of Albert Witcher and Verna Lee Nevius, have a family history that involves a family property in the Sourland Mountains in Hopewell Township and history in Pennington.

“A Slice of Life” panel discussion inside Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington on Feb. 4.

Angela Witcher said how they are preserving their family history is “basically through just talking and sharing information”.

“Sharing history is very organic. Something will happen and it will remind you of something that took place in the past and you share it with other people,” she said. “Particularly, with your kids and it goes on.”

Witcher-Harrison shared that she had gone to Hopewell Elementary School and had really enjoyed her time there.

“I had some good teachers and really [the elementary school] was a good foundation,” she said. “Then I went to Timberlane Middle School and that was awful … I was bullied.”

She urged any high school or middle school students to not be ashamed of being bullied.

“We get through and past it and move on,” she said.

High school would be better for Witcher-Harrison.

“Hopewell’s academic reputation wasn’t so good back in 1960s. When they got past it, Hopewell Valley [maintains a] pretty high ranking in the state and that is one of the reasons we stayed around,” she said.

Church impact on building community 

Clark’s family has owned a farmstead in Hopewell Township since the 20th century and has history on Dublin Road. a lot of good memories were based on the church.

Evelyn Brooks (left) Ronald Clark (center), Angela Witcher-Harrison (center right), and Suzen Witcher (right) on Feb. 4 in Pennington.

“If you did not see your friends during the week, usually you would see them on Sunday with Sunday School. Church was a good bonding experience in the Black community,” he said.

Sunday School picnics standout the most when Clark reflects on the memories he had when growing up in Hopewell Valley.

“Every year during the summer we would elect to go somewhere to go on a Sunday School picnic like Rockaway Beach in New York, Coney Island, and Palisades Park in Bergen County,” he said.

“The whole Black community would be going in maybe like two or three buses sometimes. [It was] just a great bonding experience, some of the older kids would start singing.”

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church [Bethel AME], The First Baptist Church of Pennington, Second Calvary Baptist Church in Hopewell are churches in Hopewell Valley connected to African American families.

Turmoil in the 1960s

Witcher said being a kid in Hopewell Valley, she and her siblings were very sheltered with race-related riots occurring in cities across America, such as the riot in Newark in 1967, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the riots that followed in areas like Trenton in 1968.

“I graduated in 1968, so as you can imagine there was less than 200 people in the class, it was very sheltered. The climate here to me ‘it was quiet,'” she said. “It was like you were not going to speak about it. I noticed so much of Hopewell Valley is like this.”

Witcher said it’s important to move from a “sheltered area” or else nothing is going to change.

She shared a memory of her high school senior year class trip to Washington, D.C.

“The first memory was that we were in a segregated hotel, and I remember all of us, there were four girls. Rev. King was killed while we were there,” Suzen Witcher said.

While at the zoo, an announcement was made to get back on the bus.

“We were supposed to go to Trenton to get picked up and switched that around to Princeton to get picked up. Literally as we are leaving Washington on the bus, we could see the smoke rising,” she said. “That is how fast we were getting out of there.”

Advice for the future

Witcher-Harrison said she hopes people will take “action” to continue to improve things in Hopewell Valley as time goes on.

Witcher said one action she wants people to takeaway is to “look behind your own backyard and look at different things”.

“Look at something different from where you came from or where you are out. It kind of helps open your eyes,” she said.

Clark said he would like to see people “go back to the old ways were everybody knew everybody else”.

Brooks added that she wants people to use the action of “love” to continue to improve matters in Hopewell Valley.

The panel discussion, co-sponsored by the Hopewell Historical Society and Hopewell Museum, is part of a continued effort to preserve the history of those families.

Fulmer-Hogan noted that recording the history is “essential work and there can never be too much of it.”

“The preservation and sharing of these stories in my opinion is a radical act of social justice,” she said. “Not only does it allow for us to gain a key understanding of where we come from, and where are we seated now, it also provides us with the opportunity to image a road map forward that is more equitable and more just.”