Blacks in New Jersey: The Journey Toward Economic Freedom

Groups and Communities
Published February 17, 2000

Blacks in New Jersey: The Journey Toward Economic Freedom

| Published February 17, 2000

Slave ad from Sentinel of Freedom, 1807. Freedom Not Far Distant, Clement Alexander Price

This week we are going to look at the gradual climb to black economic independence and self-sufficiency by checking diverse primary historical records, including tax ratables, city directories and 19th century newspapers.

These materials are solid and will give us a good indication of the economic progress of the Black community during the 19th century. In our three windows on 19th century black Newark history, we are going to tap into the Essex County tax ratables for 1821, the first city directory for Newark done in 1836 (the year of incorporation of the city), and the same type of directory nearly three decades later on the eve of the American Civil War. From these sources we can see how Newark, as well as the African-American community, has grown. On the national stage, Mexico had just granted Moses Austin the right to settle 300 American families in Spanish Texas, President James Monroe and Vice President Daniel Tompkins had just been inaugurated for second terms and the state of Alabama had established a patrol system to prevent escape of slaves. Baltimore had opened and consecrated its cathedral of the Assumption, and the African Theatre Company in New York was presenting an 'all-Negro' company performing classics and popular melodramas. James Fenimore Cooper's, 'The Spy,' was just published, the Saturday Evening Post founded, and the Missouri Compromise accepted.

The City in 1821

Newark finally had begun to recover from the near devastation it had suffered during the prolonged struggles between loyalists and patriots and the ravages of nearly a half dozen years of intensive fighting of the Revolutionary War. Newark of 1821 was quite different from Newark of even a few years later. It was still a New England-type village, actually a township governed almost completely by the community which gathered once a year to discuss the course of government. Granted it was considerably smaller in area than when it was first settled in the previous century, and the church no longer ruled matters of everyday life. Nevertheless, it was still a pretty primitive political community. Township records show that on April 9, 1821, at the Presbyterian Church, the town meeting was called with Joseph C. Homblower, an attorney, appointed moderator, and Philo Sanford named township clerk. Among the pressing matters that came up at the meeting were the raising of $1,800 for fire protection, attention to the city dock (land along the Passaic River), use of the township surplus to support the elderly poor and a $3 dog tax to be used for elderly welfare. Additional money would be set aside for the enlargement of the burial ground. In addition, a supervisor was appointed to manage township properties. Finally, somewhere between $500 and $5,000 was allocated for a town house (city hall). Later in the year a great industrial parade marched down Broad Street to show the world that the city had become a great industrial emporium and could hold its own with Birmingham and Manchester in England as well as the factory cities of the continent. Perhaps the most important man in town was Seth Boyden, the genius inventor born in Massachusetts and a Newarker by 1815. By 1821, he was on his way to developing the nail-making machine, building railroad engines, perfecting America's first malleable iron, producing patent leather and working with the daguerreotype.

Some years ago, Howard Wiseman, town historian of Maplewood had an occasion to check all the names in the Essex ratables and was largely responsible for finding the references to 'People of Color, Newark, 1821.' In his three page report, Wiseman found their wealth was based upon the value of an individual's home, number of horses and cattle owned, and number of chaises (a 2-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with a folding top), or stages (a horse-drawn coach that runs regularly between stations). Wiseman found among the homeowners 16 men and 2 women. Their property value ranged from a low of $200 to a high of $700. A man named Thompson, who held title to three separate buildings, was the township's wealthiest 'man of color.' This listing of African-American wealth almost 180 years ago was clear evidence of a prosperous black middle class. A property valued at $700 in 1820 would be quite valuable when compared to others. Two other important indications of a substantial background were in the number of horses and stages owned. Six men owned two or more horses. They also owned the stages or stagecoaches. Other indications of wealth included those with cows, even the one man who owned a chaise. Prominent names in this list of substantial freemen included: Richard Clasen, Jack Cudjo, Henry Cook, William Day, John O'Fake, Betty Goosebeck, Harry Harrison, Henry Hooper, James Huff, Cato Montgomery, Peter Pettet, Adam Ray, Anthony Field, Davis Ray, Thompson Thompson, Anthony Smock and Rachael Wiggins. In addition to the homeowners listed in the 1821 ratables located by Wiseman, an additional 52 free 'colored' were listed as possible renters, whose wealth was primarily in the form of horse ownership. All in all, these two lists show a substantial number of financially secure African-American Newarkers early in the last century.

Bridging the Gap

Jack Cudjo/Cudjo Banquante is a perfect transitional figure who bridges Newark's gap between slavery and freedom. Of the 18 financially substantial blacks included in the 1821 listing, Cudjo is the one about whom we know most. He belongs to both eras, but is mainly remembered because he was probably the first black man from Newark to emerge as a businessman in the earliest days of the 18th century. An exhaustive search of county records in the Morris and Essex County courthouses in the 1960s by Miriam V. Studley, former head of the Newark Public Library's New Jersey Room, produced the following information. Banquante was, according to Atkinson's History of Newark, 'one of those Newarkers who risked his life bravely side by side with whites at the Battle of Monmouth.' As for his origin, he claimed to be of royal African lineage and was known later in life not just as Jack Cudjo but also Cudjo Banquante. The name Banquante was associated with either African or Caribbean origin. In the Revolution, he served in both the Essex and Morris militias, saw duty at the Battle of Germantown, spent a winter at Valley Forge in 1777, was with Maxwell's Brigade at the already mentioned Battle of Monmouth in 1778, and fought at the skirmish of Elizabethtown Point in 1778. In 1781, he served under General Sullivan at the Battle of Yorktown. As you can see, he was involved in many noted military encounters of the war and 'was given, by old Mr. Coe of High Street, his former slave master for whom he served, freedom and several acres of ground on High Street.' Based on early records, Cudjo was considered an exceptional gardener. Upon his death, his property was divided between his two sons. This extraordinary man progressed during his lifetime from slave to freeman, and is assumed to have been in the business where he sold 'fancy' plants and was a gardener to Newark's wealthy residents. Historically significant, he was, to our best knowledge, Newark's first African-American businessman.

The City Directories

Further evidence of the economic advancement of Newark's African-American community in 1826 and 1860 comes from the pages of our city directories. Leafing through each book, page by page, has given us the following information. The earlier one which is only 110 pages is fairly small, reflecting the city's rather small population of just 19,732 residents. By 1860, Newark's population has mushroomed to 71,941, which is reflected in the 1,500-page directory for that period. Since there is no classified listing of 'colored' or African-American, every page must be scanned for 'colored entries.' Remember: Newark was starting to experience tremendous growth by the third decade of the 19th century and continued impressive population increases throughout the remainder of the century. On the national level, the American Temperance Union was organized; James Monroe, fourth president of the United States and 'Father of the U.S. Constitution' died; the United States and Venezuela signed a peace treaty and the Alamo fell to Mexican troops. Here in Newark, the old New England-type government was changed to a modern city format, the Morris and Essex Railroad was completed, and Newark's first industrial census showed tremendous growth at home.

The 1836 Directory

Our review of the 1836 directory show that only 96 Newarkers among the entire population of 3,168 residents, were listed as 'colored.' Of that number, 44 were laborers and 17 were women, of which half were widows. Unlike the 1860 census, a very high percentage of the 1836 black population were apparently unskilled and listed as teamsters, barbers, cooks and oystermen. Others worked as porters, coachmen, blacksmiths, plane makers and carpenters. On the national scene, the Pony Express made an 11-day run to the great American West, proving that it could get the mail through; Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party; Fort Sumter was bombarded and the United States population exceeded 31 million. Here in Newark, there were no slaves by 1860. Newark voted heavily against Lincoln; and two Newark men were to become heroes of the Civil War—General Theodore Runyon and General Philip Kearny. By 1860, the Newark directory shows 157 entries under 'colored,' including 21 women. The actual number of entries under laborer or teamster had fallen dramatically, and there were new types of employment or crafts in the building trades, associated with clothing, food preparation and a new category—the professions. The directory also contains a variety of new entries for charcoalmen, dressers, porters, and trunk makers. Others were now employed as carpenters, shingle makers, white washers, house movers, dealers in second-hand furniture, varnishers and gardeners. Attention to clothing also demanded new jobs for colored residents as seamstresses, laundrymen and hatters. And, one of the most encouraging of the new entries were teachers, musicians, engineers and ministers. In 1860 Newark's African-American community seemed to settle predominantly within the boundaries of Nesbit Street on the west and Mulberry Street on the east, with a southern boundary along Walnut and Marshall streets. Within this area were frequently listed addresses along Market, Plane, Washington, Academy and High streets. Several families chose to live near Newark's main transportation points such as the Canal or along the DL&W Station (today's Broad Street Station). There were also many addresses 'off Broad Street' and 'off High Street,' which may have indicated they resided in a carriage or coach house of a large townhouse. Only a few years after the 1821 tax ratable list, there was clear evidence of a previously unskilled work force already beginning to take a substantial foothold in an increasingly prosperous city of national importance.

The O'Fakes of Newark

A name reaching back to the beginning of the 19th century was that of the O'Fake family. Perhaps the most famous O'Fakes were two men who were known prominently as the city's earliest music and dance teachers and several women were seamstresses. John O'Fake is listed in the 1850 census, but seems to have died in the mid-1850s. Subsequently, John H. O'Fake appears, listed as a musician. In the 1900 census he is still living at the reported age of 90. His name drops out of the directories shortly afterward. His brother, Peter, had an obituary in the Newark Morning Register on January 28, 1884, which read: ‘‘Loving hands had strewn sweet flowers around, a large sickle and what-sheaf floral emblem being specially noticeable. At eleven o'clock the pall bearers, Messes Elias Ray, Adam Ray, Andrew W. McIntyre, A W. James, Abraham T. Cook, Prof. D. P'Alsdorl, W. H. Blake and James M. Baxter reverently bore their friend to the hearse and the funeral cortege proceeded to St. Philip's P. E. Church, where the following clergymen awaited its coming; Revs. Massiah, Dana, Webbe, Stansberry, Wyman and Vanderpool. The impressive burial service of the Episcopal Church was read by Rev. W. T. Webbe and words of affection for his late warden were spoken by the rector, Rev. U. Massiah, after which the choir sang, in obedience to the last request of deceased, the hymn, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd,' that having been taught him in earliest childhood by his mother. The procession then moved to Woodland Cemetery. Undertaker Charles N. Compton was in charge. Here, the last tribute of respect was paid and the mourners returned sadly to their homes feeling that they had lost a friend.' The trip was a long one, from slavery to the early days of the East Jersey Proprietors to growing economic and political power at the beginning of the 20th century. Nevertheless, great strides were made.