The Real Historians of New Jersey: How to Connect with the Past in 170 Miles

The Real Historians of New Jersey: How to Connect with the Past in 170 Miles

Susan Soprano

How often do you get the opportunity to “practice what you preach?” After a decade of teaching social studies, writing social studies curriculum, and leading professional development, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve discussed the importance of thinking like a historian. After years of working so hard in my career, I was looking forward to spending the first part of the 2021-2022 school year bonding with my new son on maternity leave. As I dreamed of spending my days in pajamas, drinking coffee that has gone cold, an email comes in from Hank Bitten at the NJ Council for Social Studies. The email contained an application for a grant project to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. The project would focus specifically on the work and decisions of lesser-known NJ citizens during the war. As I took another sip of my cold coffee, I thought, “Yeah! I can make some time for this!” I realized that after so many years of promoting research, citing sources, making history come to life, etc., I’ve had less time than I’d care to admit actually doing it. I saw this grant project as an opportunity to bring my knowledge of early American history to life.

My work on this project began in November 2021 at the Dey Mansion in Totowa, NJ. The mansion served as Washington’s headquarters during the Revolution in 1780. Over 600 pieces of correspondence from Washington are a part of the artifacts in the mansion’s collection. Me and other members of the grant project worked with educational director Jessica Bush for a day of learning and engaging with history at the Dey Mansion. Bush spoke candidly about slavery at the Dey Mansion and about how the institution of slavery was prevalent in New Jersey during the war. History books do not often discuss this. My interest was piqued here and I planned on focusing on slavery for my part of the project. As a teacher in Passaic County, I planned to focus on slavery and early abolition here.

            The next day, the grant team met at the Monmouth County Historical Association (MCHA) in Freehold, NJ. We worked with Reference Librarian and Archivist, Dana Howell. She led us upstairs to a table filled with documents, many of which could take hours, even days to read. I cautiously walked up to the table and scooped up some primary sources thinking, “Well, I’ll start here.” The very first document I picked up was a manumission paper written by this man named Samuel Allinson. He’s not a Passaic County man, but somehow, I was led right to the topic I planned to focus on. Right here, I was hooked on Allinson. I began to look for more documents containing his name, and I dove into the internet to learn more. I left the Monmouth County Historical Association pleased with the work I had done.

            Over the next several weeks, I put together an activity and documentary on Samuel Allinson that could be utilized by New Jersey middle school students, and their families alike. Through this project, I am helping NJ residents understand the significance of the lesser known Samuel Allinson. He was a Burlington County native (fun fact: never been there!) who was a Quaker, lawyer, and abolitionist. He helped provide education to free blacks living in his county, and he was a supporter of the Loyalist cause during the Revolution. He was able to manumit over 30 slaves. There is evidence of his correspondence with George Washington, William Livingston, and Patrick Henry. His correspondence speaks to his beliefs that liberty for all included the enslaved, thus leading him to question the ideals of liberty that the Patriots were fighting vehemently for. In many ways, we are still discussing the very questions that Allinson had about freedom in his time.

 I had an opportunity to review excerpts from The Ragged Road to Abolition by Jim Gigantino. I was thankful enough to speak with Jim virtually in mid-January to review some final details about Allinson’s work, and about the early abolitionist cause of Quakers like him. He describes Allinson as being “savvy” and “astute”, knowing that he was fighting for an unpopular cause. He stood out in Burlington County and among the Quaker community.

Before I finalized my project, I took another trip back to MCHA where I again met with Dana. I went there wondering if there was any more information available on Allinson’s work as an abolitionist. At first, Dana thought she wouldn’t have much on a Burlington County resident, but within no time, she located the Freedom Papers-a collection of 37 manumission documents all finalized by Samuel Allinson! This gave me the evidence I needed to show the abolitionist work he was doing in the late 1700s. An added bonus of working with Dana was getting an opportunity to view the Beneath the Floorboard exhibit at Marlpit Hall, a property that is maintained by the MCHA. Artifacts here show how slavery is a part of Monmouth County’s history, and tells the story of seven slaves who lived in this home. For more information on this exhibit, see ​​https://www.monmouthhistory.org/beneath-the-floorboards

Beneath the Floorboards: History of Enslaved Persons in Marlpit Hall
Opportunity to Learn the story of enslaved individuals living in Marlpit Hall in Monmouth County

Ultimately, the team working on this grant project will introduce you to lesser known “heroes” of the Revolution who lived all over the state. This is such important work for educators to take part in. From my experience in this project, I have two main points to reflect on:

1. Don’t miss any opportunity to learn more! The experiences that I had doing research were hands-on and challenging. Aside from the work I’ve created, I’m left with unanswered questions about abolition and lives of the enslaved in NJ that have been hidden for far too long. I can’t help but wonder what could have happened in our country if only abolition was fought for more feverishly at the Constitutional Convention. Knowing about the work of Samuel Allinson will enrich my teaching of the American Revolution and early abolition in the United States. These new insights will allow students to engage with primary texts that support the work of Quakers right here in their own state.

2. Make connections! Because I decided to work on this project, I am now connected with historians all around NJ, and in Arkansas (Jim Gigantino). Hopefully these relationships will grow, and it’s worth will be reflected in my teaching. In the near future, I hope to plan and lead professional development that will allow my colleagues to become teacher-scholars, similar to the experience I had on this project. It is my hope that this type of “hands-on” learning will ignite passion, and will remind educators why they do what they do.

And who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a drive to Allinson’s old haunts (with cold coffee in hand, obviously).

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