An Educator’s Perspective on Teaching the Voices of Enslaved People in New Jersey as Part of Local History

Few high school history textbooks have much to say about slavery in the northern colonies and states. While coverage of the evils of slavery has dramatically increased in recent years, the focus has always been on enslaved people in the south. Although slavery is mentioned 14 times in the NJSLS 2020 standards, the only connection to slavery in New Jersey is 6.1.8.History CC.4.a: “Explain the growing resistance to slavery and New Jersey’s role in the Underground Railroad,”[1] implying that New Jersey was a hotbed of abolitionism instead of the dark reality: the gradual abolition law in 1804 maintained slavery for life for those born before its passage, and the so-called Act to Abolish Slavery in 1846 replaced slavery with apprenticeship for life[2]. The ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t merely free the enslaved in states that were in rebellion, but 16 enslaved people in New Jersey.[3]

An Educator’s Perspective on Teaching the Voices of Enslaved People in New Jersey as Part of Local History

Robert Fenster

            Is it at all surprising that most students graduate high school in New Jersey unaware of the enduring nature of this institution in their home state? Although it might be argued that malignant forces are behind a whitewashing of New Jersey history, it seems more likely that a collective reductionism is at work here. There are only so many days to “cover” the curriculum, so some simplification is necessary. It’s easier for students to understand the binary depiction of the southern enslaver states being evil, while the north is the home of abolition. However, that sort of teaching is oversimplified and not only does injustice to actual history, but to the lives of thousands of people who were enslaved in New Jersey.

            In the summer of 2020, I was fortunate to participate in Slavery in the Colonial North, a National Endowment for the Humanities institute held at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York under the guidance of Leslie Harris and Jacqueline Simmons. There I was inspired to dig deeper into New Jersey history. I went to the Somerset County clerk’s office and examined  birth certificates and manumission records of enslaved people from Hillsborough, the town I teach in. Some of the names of the enslavers were recognizable to my students because their descendants are still in town or particular roads are named for them. Although that lesson was in and of itself was impactful, it didn’t do enough to explore the lives of enslaved men and women.

Before I began to focus on agency, I would often be asked by students, “Why didn’t they fight back?” I would turn the question back to the class and ask them to consider possible answers. Typically students would suggest a fear of consequences, a lack of options in a world of systemic oppression, or white access to authority and weaponry. Although these are all somewhat valid in particular circumstances, and the conversation worthwhile, a better immediate response would have been, “They did, and in many ways.” No U.S. history class should lack a focus on the myriad ways that enslaved people resisted: open rebellion, self-liberation, sabotage, poisoning, self-harm,, defiance of rules governing marriage, religion, and literacy, and the development of a unique culture to name just a few. During the American Revolution, thousands of enslaved people self-liberated and joined the British military in the hopes of bringing down the institution of slavery for themselves and others. A smaller number served as substitutes in the Continental Army or state militias with the hope of gaining their freedom through their service.

            One of the biggest stumbling blocks to adequately examining the lives of the enslaved is a lack of primary sources. Many enslaved people did not know how to write or were actively prevented from learning. As a consequence, most of the sources from the relevant time periods are secondary sources, which require historians to draw inferences after filtering for the potential biases of the original authors. In some cases, the bias is overt and easy to spot; for example, the writing of any white supremacist. On the other hand, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist, is written by William Allinson, an abolitionist. Although the book provides some basic biographical information, its focus belies the author’s utter lack of interest in the enslaved person’s internal life, reducing him to a prop.[4] Allinson and other similar contemporary writers may have had good intentions, but they tend to infantilize their subjects, providing their own form of racist depiction to the mix.


[1]New Jersey Student Learning Standards – Social Studies, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-SS.pdf.

[2]An Act For the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (1804), accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.0990100b/?sp=1.Selected New Jersey Laws related to slavery and Free People of Color, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.montclair.edu/anthropology/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2021/06/Slavery-in-New-Jersey-Literature-Review-Appendix-B-Slave-Codes_Remediated.pdf.

[3] Julia Martin, “Slavery’s legacy is written all over North Jersey, if you know where to look,” NorthJersey.com, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/essex/montclair/2021/02/28/american-dream-paramus-nj-part-north-jersey-slavery-legacy/4212248001/.

[4]Kenneth E. Marshall, Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 18

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