Slavery in New Jersey: A Shame that Spanned Three Centuries

Groups and Communities
Published February 10, 2000

Slavery in New Jersey: A Shame that Spanned Three Centuries

| Published February 10, 2000

Slaves Haven, 70 Warren Street, built by Jacob King, 1830. Sunday Newark Call Magazine, October 3, 1937 NJ Historical Society

For the next two weeks of Black History Month we are going to look at the economic rise of African-Americans from 17th century slavery to 20th century entrepreneurship.

An unpopular and controversial topic, slavery not only existed in the southern United States and in rural eastern and southern New Jersey, but also right here in Newark. On an economic scale from 1 to 10, our story begins at minus 0, since the unwilling slave was not even considered a human being in the eyes of the law, but as a chattel—a piece of property which had more economic than human value. We are not asking how or why this was allowed to happen in an era that produced Bach and Beethoven, saw the building of cathedrals, the writing of major literature or the emergence of great countries. Instead, we will consider the machinery that was set in place in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to regulate slavery and incorporate it as an accepted benchmark. Slavery was not like a water tap which was turned on and off, being created in a single action. Nor was it abolished overnight. It was created by a series of legal and administrative steps as was its abolition. Obviously the 'powers that be'—those in control of society at the time—were powerful enough to make it function for three centuries. Nevertheless some people of good will never accepted it.

Slavery: Sad Road to Infamy

As far as we can tell, the Connecticut Puritans who settled Newark never embraced slavery. They came to Newark pretty much as equals, bowing only to the authority of their immediate family structure or to the political and religious authority of Robert Treat and Rev. Abraham Pierson. Newark was part of the Province of East Jersey. The first references to slavery appeared in the Concessions and Agreements of 1664-65. This rather remarkable document offered religious freedom and the right to be left alone, something unique for settlers in the new world, which at the same time promised a land grant of 150 acres for each new resident. Problems arose because the Concessions assured that additional lands would become available for settlers who brought indentured male servants and or slaves to East Jersey. Simply viewed, more land for settlers and in some cases the ownership of slaves, could easily double the size of a land grant. Colonial administrators were more concerned about labor to run the economy than the human price that had to be paid. But slavery was not created in New Jersey. Neighboring New England, New York and faraway Barbados had established strong slave-holding economies.

Dr. Clement Price in his book, 'Freedom Not Far Distant,' skillfully chronicles the pathway in which slavery developed in East Jersey/New Jersey, noting that by 1694 the colony had already taken steps to prohibit African-Americans from carrying guns, set fines for harboring slaves, and established tight authority over its slaves in a strict legal system. A special Slave Court was established where, as Price noted, 'Negroes, other Slaves, felony and murder cases were to be tried before three justices of the peace of the county and a jury of 12 men' from 1695 until 1768. The Instructions from the Queen in Council to the Governor of the Province of New Jersey, November, 1702 were directions from Queen Anne to '…our beloved Edward Lord Cornbury Our Captain in General and Governor in Chief in and over Our Province of Nova Caesarea or New-Jersey in America. Given at Our Court at St. James's the 16th Day of November, 1702 in the first year of Our Reign.' Basically, the instructions were an elaborate series of 52 commands, dictating how to govern the diverse lands and former plantations in the now unified colony of New Jersey. Included were admonishments to deal only with the Royal African Company, 'to endeavor to get a law past for the restraining of any Inhuman Severity and to assist the Council and Assembly to find the best means to facilitate and encourage the Conversion of Negroes and Indians to the Christian Religion.' Following the 1712 New York City slave rebellion, local security regulations were tightened in New Jersey, accompanied by harsh punishment in the case of arson, rape and murder. By 1745, the voice of moderation and an attempt to speak out against slavery was urged by John Woolman, a south Jersey Quaker and tailor from Mt. Holly. Woolman was considered one of the colony's best known anti-slavery proponents. By 1721, the old head tax on importing slaves expired, opening up room for more slaves. The Provincial Assembly took the opportunity to stomp out slavery by raising the new tax. But the Provincial Council overruled the move, and once again finance seemed to the 18th century mind more critical than the condition of fellow humans.

By 1804, the gradual end to slavery was in sight due in part to the ideas of the American Revolutionary War, the New Jersey Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the Enlightenment, according to Price. By terms of the 1804 legislation, the mechanism to the end of the evil institution was on the books although it took another 60 years to occur. In 1800, there were 12,422 slaves in New Jersey, comprising 5.8 percent of the population. Price points out that slavery, while of some value to rural New Jersey, was proving impractical to the growing industrial towns of Newark, Jersey City and Paterson. Under the 1804 law, children born of slaves after July 4, 1804, were to be freed to become servants of their mother's owner until age 25 for males and 21 for females.

Slavery in Newark

Specific examples of slavery in Newark extended from the era of the Puritans to the visit of President Lincoln, from 1666 to 1860 or almost two centuries. A review of these events can probably be best described with a substantial dose of hindsight. In the 1600s Lords Carteret and Berkeley apparently condoned the institution. In 1746, the New Jersey Gazette ran an ad for the return of a Newark youth who 'speaks broken English,…wore a red jacket with white metal buttons a felt hat and a torn shirt and old trousers.' In 1778 Cudjo, a slave owned by Benjamin Coe, who lived in the family homestead on the site of the present Star-Ledger building, fought in the Revolutionary War for his master. By 1796, Jabez Parkhurst and Samuel Pennington began the Newark Centinel of Freedom that carried a knight in armor bearing the slogan Defending the Rights of Man on its masthead. For the first time, strong criticism of slavery occurred. As the Centinel declared, 'No longer ought such injustice be tolerated in a land of liberty. No longer ought the character of American citizens be tarnished in such an act as this. Shall Americans who nobly resented the first attempts of a designing ministry to enslave them and took up arms to defend their right, and conquered under the banner of freedom, still continue to hold their fellow men in thralldom? For Shame.' These were bold words for a newspaper which ran paid advertisements for slave owners and from factory operators who sold their manufactured products to the American South before the Civil War.

By 1810, the number of slaves in New Jersey had decreased. By 1820, there were 7,557 and in 1860 just 18 'apprentices for life' or slaves waiting to be freed by the 13th Amendment. In 1820 the codification of New Jersey's abolition laws dealt slavery another blow. By 1846 the word apprenticeship for became substituted for bondage. In 1826, efforts were made to involve in the American Colonization Society Newarkers with vastly differing opinions about locating former Africans to their homelands. To some, it was a racist attempt to dispose of the 'Negro problem.' To others, it was an ideal solution to all the problems facing African-Americans in the new world and especially in industrial Newark. In 1834, Peter Johnson and Henry Drayton, Newark blacks, organized the Anti-Slavery Society 'to protect slave conditions and the treatment of freed blacks.' They were joined by the famous Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Samuel Cornish, a Newark African-American later known throughout the north for his vigorous opposition to 'African colonization.' In 1835, just one year before Newark's incorporation as a city, the Fourth Presbyterian Church, founded by blacks who had withdrawn from Old First, began their own services. In 1846, 42 years after the initial attempt to phase out slavery, the practice was still very much alive in Clinton Township, today's Clinton Hill section, an extreme agricultural area at the time with needs not unlike those of downstate farmers who resisted abandoning slavery. In 1848, an African-American Episcopal group left Trinity to establish their own parish of St. Philip's. Years later, the two churches were rejoined as Trinity and St. Philip's Cathedral. In 1851 the first downtown church to take an active role in speaking out against slavery, the Free Presbyterian Church, took a firm political stand which alienated it from many of the other older, larger and richer downtown congregations.

Slaves for Sale

As we mentioned, Lords Carteret and Berkeley and the Duke of York, president of the Royal African Society, considered black individuals as chattel. On July 12, 1796 the Newark Centinel of Freedom included the following advertisement 'For sale: Negro man, strong male of good disposition, and capable of doing as much work as any man in the State.' Another ad offered a 'lively Negro girl, fourteen years of age.' A third reference was to 'James, who was going to be sold and the profits used for the construction of a school.' In 1807, the paper printed an ad for 'a young black woman, with a male child of about three months. She is a smart girl, healthy and capable of performing all kinds of kitchen work and waiting on table.' In 1810, a young Negro man about 24 years old was offered for sale, described as 'powerful and active, ' (and who) understands the milling business and is well acquainted with farming, particularly plowing and mowing.' Frequent rewards were offered for runaway slaves. In the 1810 Newark press, a $5 reward was offered for 'Fillis; 5 feet, 7 inches, of light complexion seen at Rahway.' In 1807, a $30 reward was offered for '…a Negro man, Frank, about 38 years old 5 feet 8 inches in height, of a yellowish complexion, a very morose countenance, and grim voice. It is supposed he went to New York, having relatives. Whoever will take up said runaway and deliver him to the subscriber shall have the above named reward and reasonable expense.' The public view on slavery probably softened with the coming of the great religious revivals of the 18th century which spread across the country and into Newark. Soon an organization appeared that was known as 'the Voluntary Association of People of Newark to Observe the Sabbath.' In 1820, the Centinel of Freedom ran an article boldly speaking out against the injustice of slavery, taking a view completely opposite the slave advertisements which appeared in the newspaper. By 1820 slavery finally was disappearing in New Jersey through gradual emancipation. That year the last slave was reported freed by Matthew Banks of Woodside. In a book of the period, Woodside Banks was described as 'possibly the last slave owner in the neighborhood and is said to have purchased a Negro from John Hawthorn, the quarryman, and when he sold his place (farm) along the Passaic he wished to dispose of a colored boy age 14, used to farm work.' To the white community Banks apparently was an amusing character, 'being so lazy that he hoes his corn on horseback . . . but would turn a penny now and then by selling herring for shad to the unsophisticated.'

From time to time in the 20th century, newspaper articles concerning the deaths of former slaves and references to the Underground Railroad appeared. These are scattered and deserve careful attention. When properly researched, they can shed information on this chapter of our 19th century history. Two interesting slave obituaries appeared in The Newark News. A 1960 story (Ex-Slave, 123, Dies in Newark) was about Hartman Brown, who died at the Ivy Haven Nursing Home, and whose picture appeared in the paper on his 117th birthday. Previously, we looked at the details of his life last year and his reminiscences of Fort Beauregard, La. in the Civil War. Another account was of Anthony Thompson, who lived at Eagle Rock Avenue at Tory Corner late in life. His grandmother had been a member of African royalty. He and his mother, who was born in Rahway, were sold into a family in Cranetown (Montclair). When his master died, Thompson became his own master at 25 but stayed on with the Ward family. He purchased his mother from her owners for $100, then cared for her until her death.

References to Underground Railway stops also surface from time to time. In some instances they were stops on the escape route to 19th century freedom. Often they were tunnels, designed for other purposes, including industrial functions or for water storage for fire protection. It is presumed that the tunnel at Old First Church was a railroad stop. In 1937, The Newark Sunday Call ran an article about the old house at 70 Warren St., built by Jacob Thompson, a leading African-American Newarker who protected fugitives on more than one occasion. By the end of the Civil War the slave had emerged as a free black. Men, women, and children of color supposedly were free in the eyes of the law courts, a hard thing for a hostile society to accept. It would take another century to make the whole thing work.