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

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

by Robert Fenster

Few high school history textbooks have much to say about Black people in the northern colonies and states. While coverage of the evils of slavery has dramatically increased since I was a student in the 1980s, the focus has predominantly been on enslaved people in the south and not enslaved northerners nor free Black people. Slavery is mentioned 14 times in the New Jersey Student Learnings Standards from 2020, but 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] The standard implies 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[2], and the so-called Act to Abolish Slavery in 1846 replaced slavery with apprenticeship for life. The ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t merely free the slaves in states that were in rebellion, but also 16 people who remained enslaved in New Jersey in December of 1865.[3]

            Is it at all surprising that most students graduate high school in New Jersey unaware of the enduring nature of this institution or the experience of Blacks in the north? 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 celebrated as the home of abolition. That sort of teaching is oversimplified and not only does injustice to actual history, but to the lives of thousands of men and women who were enslaved in New Jersey, as well as the lives of free Black people. This essay shares my ongoing pedagogical journey, and provides some suggestions for my fellow educators who wish to improve student understanding of the history of Black people in New Jersey.

Although modern textbooks include the death of biracial Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, overall Black participation in the actual American Revolution is typically relegated to a sidebar or absent altogether. Graham Russell Hodges describes the American Revolution as a Black revolution, “the largest slave revolt before the Civil War.” Hodges indicates there is documentation for at least 18,000 Black individuals who fought for the British, with the possibility of tens of thousands more having served in an effort to throw off the oppressive shackles of the colonial governments.[4]

            At a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Slavery in the Colonial North in 2020 at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York run by Leslie Harris and Jacqueline Simmons, I saw the buildings where enslaved people toiled, and heard from expert tour guides who shared how historians pieced together so much of the history of the manor. It inspired me to focus more on slavery in New Jersey. I went to my county clerk’s office and found birth certificates and manumission records of enslaved people from our town and prepared a lesson plan incorporating these primary sources. My students were taken aback especially to see names familiar to them among the enslavers. In addition to discussing how the descendants of the enslaved people might feel about their history, the students also considered what the descendants of enslavers might think about their family’s past. That lesson in and of itself was impactful, but I was acutely aware it didn’t do enough to explore the lives of enslaved men and women.

            Well-intentioned teachers sometimes make cringe-worthy mistakes. There are lessons I did early in my career (and, truth be told, even more recently) that were tone deaf at best. It seems as if every year there’s another incident where a misguided teacher somewhere in the United States steps knee deep into controversy by running a slavery simulation. The vast majority of teachers know such a lesson has no pedagogical value and runs the risk of inducing trauma. A cursory search for lesson plans online still finds dozens of “walk a mile in their shoes” lessons, where educators think they can responsibly and effectively get students to learn by pretending they understand what an enslaved person went through, usually done through some kind of journaling activity. Although I believe it can be useful to consider what enslaved people might have been feeling, it’s ultimately presumptuous and reductive to suggest students would be able to have that level of empathy and understanding. The temptation to work solely in the affective domain when dealing with slavery and other atrocities should be resisted.

            Many enslaved people were actively prevented from learning how to write, creating a dearth of first-person documents in comparison to white contemporaries who kept journals and wrote letters. There are a number of insightful enslaved person narratives, but when trying to keep to New Jersey history it is a bit challenging. There are a handful of narratives written by white contemporaries, like William Allinson’s Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist. Although Allinson is an abolitionist, he uses his subject as a prop to further his political cause rather than illuminate the individual he is writing about. This focus belies an utter lack of interest in the enslaved person’s internal life and somewhat limits the usefulness of the text.[5] Historians are left to construct meaning out of other resources like fugitive notices, laws, tax registers, censuses, travel logs, registers of free Black people, and manumission records. New Jersey has a fairly robust set of available documents, making the work of historians easier than in several neighboring states.[6]

My evolving goal as a history teacher is three-fold: depict enslaved people as complex individuals who exercised their agency in a variety of ways, examine the ugly reality of slavery in our town, county, and state, and empower students to become historians themselves by examining the wealth of resources available to them on local history.

# # #

The study of agency is absolutely essential to shift student understanding from a one-dimensional conception of hapless victims to recognizing the humanity and complexity of individuals. Enslaved people’s agency was exhibited on a daily basis in a wide variety of ways. When students would ask me “Why didn’t they fight back?” I used to foolishly accept their premise and engage in a conversation about weaponry, psychology, and geography. Although those are all worthy of examination in a larger conversation on the subject, the fact is they fought back in innumerable ways. Agency was exhibited through armed revolt, breaking equipment, arson, working slowly or poorly, poisoning, feigning illness, self-harm, self-liberation, negotiation, and the development of an enslaved culture through language, families, community, religion, and music.

Jigsaw lesson plans are best used when the specific content is less important than the larger concepts. Examining the organized rebellions of enslaved people is an excellent opportunity to use this approach to its maximum efficacy. Students can research the Stono Rebellion, the New York Conspiracy of 1741, Gabriel’s Conspiracy, the German Coast Uprising, and Nat Turner’s Rebellion, for example. I have my students identify key figures, provide a description of the events, and then require them to find a way to frame the event as a successful endeavor. Students, of course, recognize the limits to their success, but by going beyond the reductionism of “Were they emancipated as a result of their rebellion?” it provides a key lesson.

Incidents of self-harm present a challenge to educators. We want students to understand the lengths to which enslaved people would go to assert their agency, but want to be careful about triggering existing trauma on the subject of self-harm. I’m still grappling with how much focus to put on the subject, but have used some narratives of enslaved people and newspaper articles to at least touch on the subject, if not dwell on it. The National Humanities Center has a collection of suicide-related items for teachers to consider using in their curriculum.[7] There are also an array of primary and secondary accounts of self-mutilation, such as the report of the “Desperate Negro Woman” in the Staunton Vindicator who “deliberately cut three of her fingers off, taking two licks at them” with an axe.[8] Needless to say, educators should tread lightly in this area, keeping a keen eye out for the reactions of their students.

Small acts of sabotage are more challenging to document as they likely would be chalked up to accidents or the natural wear and tear on equipment when tools would break. I don’t use any primary sources for this, but there are quite a few descriptions in narratives of enslaved people describing particular incidents that occurred prior to their emancipation. More dramatic forms of resistance like arson tend to capture students’ imagination such as the Albany fires of 1793.[9]

We used to speak of “runaway slaves,” but both terms have undergone a transition for similar reasons. As Katy Waldman pointed out, “To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amounted to a form of emancipation.”[10] Similarly, Daina Ramey Berry writes about the self-liberated: “[T]heir emancipation reflected a level of agency—a public showing of their personhood—and for them, escape was not a crime.”[11] Students can benefit by examining enslavers’ advertisements about the self-liberated which reveal so much about their assumptions and beliefs about their “property,” and often unintentionally expose the skills and accomplishments of the individuals in question.[12]

Giles Wright wrote that the American Revolution was “the cultural metamorphosis of Africans into African Americans.”[13] However, students rarely consider the creation of a common culture to be a form of resistance without being led to that conclusion.  I’m still working on developing plans to help students see enslaved people as something more than one-dimensional figures. I found the Historic Hudson Valley’s People Not Property interactive website particularly useful in helping students make the connection.[14] Modules on the poetry of Phylis Wheatley, the celebration of Pinkster, and the role of extralegal marriages help students better understand how oppressed people can offer resistance through assertions of their own humanity. It helps students understand that these individuals were not passive victims who allowed their oppressors to defeat them at every turn.

# # #

            When I was given the opportunity to participate in the New Jersey Council For Social Studies grant “Telling our Story: Living in New Jersey in the 1770s” focusing on the lives of lesser known individuals during the American Revolution, I knew from the outset I wanted to research Black people from Somerset County, and ideally, from Hillsborough, the town I teach in. I’d read Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills’ powerful book If These Stones Could Talk. The Revolutionary War service of William Stives gets particular attention along with his decision to settle near Hillsborough after the war.[15] The Sourland Mountain ridge runs 17 miles from Lambertville to the western end of Hillsborough, so my students would recognize various geographic locations from his life story. However, since the authors’ work had gained significant attention, I wasn’t sure my focusing on his life would do much to elevate Stives’ story.

            I spent several afternoons at the Somerset County Library in Bridgewater, poring over their local history holdings. Having never done much in the way of local history research, it took awhile to orient myself as to what was available, but before long I encountered a number of promising leads. The most significant came from the Somerset County Historical Quarterly, an outstanding publication compiling historical essays and primary source documents, which ran from 1912 to 1919. It was all I could do not to get lost reading unrelated articles about Hillsborough and nearby towns. However, the article entitled “Revolutionary War Record of a Somerset County Slave” in the 1914 edition utterly captivated me.[16] The story of an enslaved man named Samuel who served as a substitute for his enslaver in exchange for the promise of freedom takes several awful, though not surprising twists. Samuel’s two years of service, including fighting at the battles of Long Island, Princeton, Monmouth — and the very local Millstone — ended in two leg wounds and the broken promise of his enslaver. Decades later, in his mid-80s, Samuel sought a pension for his service, but was repeatedly denied his just due because the pensions board claimed he had not proven his service. Ultimately, the New Jersey legislature passed a law specific to Samuel, providing him $50 a year for the remaining few years of his life.

            Chasing down information on Samuel Sutphen (as he came to be called later in his life) was both challenging and invigorating. It’s been decades since I was a college student doing research in the basement of Alexander Library at Rutgers University. I had hoped to revisit the same location for both nostalgic and practical reasons (the holdings at Rutgers are quite impressive), but Hurricane Ida made that an impossibility. Instead I relied mostly on internet-based research and was able to gain enough materials to prepare a structured academic controversy for my students. The activity incorporated materials on the multiracial Marbleheaders, and Black participants Benjamin Whitecuff, Colonel Tye, and Prime. Frankly it is a work in progress in need of development, but my students saw the breadth of Black participation in the war instead of merely seeing the battles through the eyes of the white officers.

            When I mentioned my desire to learn about enslaved people in Hillsborough, I was pointed towards the biography of Silvia Dubois, a formerly enslaved woman who received her freedom after a physical altercation with her enslaver. Dubois self-liberated after the encounter and negotiated her freedom in exchange for promising never to return.[17] Her story is remarkable, but chronologically was outside the purview of the grant. Nonetheless I read a series of items about her story and took notes for a future lesson plan. In the meantime, I encountered an article about her grandfather Harry Compton written by Kenneth E. Marshall. In turn, this led me to Marshall’s book Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth Century New Jersey, in which he focuses on the lives of three enslaved men, including the aforementioned Quamino Buccau. I liked the idea of examining a second Black man from the time period who had not served, but instead experienced changing circumstances during the American Revolution. With many enslavers off serving in the militia or Continental Army, numerous enslaved people used the opportunity to liberate themselves, negotiate better conditions for themselves, or rebel in other ways.

            In examining the experiences of various individuals based on limited and sometimes questionable documentation, it is crucial that students understand that there are limits to what we can definitively know. Many students struggle with history because they struggle with nuance, wanting everything to be crystal clear. For me, the shades of grey are what make history fascinating, and the use of deductive reasoning a great and wonderful challenge. The best conversations in the classroom are the ones where students have honest disagreements about historical interpretations with equally compelling logical arguments to support their positions. What we can do to help them is to identify particular facts and events that serve as anchors. Quamino Buccau, in his teens, was forced to watch executions of enslaved people accused of arson and other crimes.[18] Because Allinson never bothered to ask his subject how he felt about his experiences, we are left to speculate about how such experiences would impact an individual and their subsequent behavior. When he converts to Christianity after hearing what he believed to be the voice of God, a fascinating dichotomy occurs. Some, like Allinson, hold him up to be a model enslaved person, the very proof the abolitionist is seeking to demonstrate the notion that Black people could become responsible citizens imbued by their faith in religion. His subsequent enslaver, however, looked at his religiosity as something inappropriate and suspect. Kenneth Marshall raises fascinating questions about how an enslaved person might show interest in Christianity to curry favor with their enslaver, and how that in and of itself might be an assertion of agency.[19] There’s a lot to unpack here and it may be something that cannot be easily converted into a one- or two-day lesson plan. That being said, a discussion of religion and agency is definitely important in the coverage of slavery.

            Conducting this type of research and lesson planning is simultaneously rewarding and humbling. Even as I create a useful lesson plan that I will share with other educators and likely use for the rest of my career, I reflect on how many years I didn’t adequately address the subject matter in my classes. And I recognize that despite including them in the opening paragraphs of the essay, I have yet to develop resources and lessons on the lives of free Blacks in New Jersey. There is always more work to do, but at least we’re going in the right direction.

# # #

We want our students to be more than passive receptacles of knowledge that we distill. There are myriad critical thinking activities we can provide, but perhaps nothing could surpass doing the actual work of historians. There are thousands of primary and secondary source documents available online, in historical society archives, and in government offices. For example, in West Hartford, Connecticut, students participated in the Witness Stones Project, researching their town’s sordid history in connection to slavery. Beginning with an Advanced Placement US History class and then spreading out to lower grade levels, students dug into historical archives to learn more about the lives of enslaved people, commemorate their lives, and create lasting tributes through the placement of historical markers.[20] Although Covid-19 continues to present obstacles for some research, there’s no reason that our students here in New Jersey can’t start doing similar work to the West Hartford students in an effort to elevate the stories and voices of forgotten people from our local communities.

References


[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. In addition, the work of James J. Gigantino Jr. provides extensive resources on this subject.

[4] Hodges, Graham Russell. Interview with the author. Bob’s Just Asking podcast, January 27, 2022.

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

[6] Hodges Interview.

[7]National Humanities Center, “Suicide among Slaves: A “Very Last Resort,” accessed February 5, 2022, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/emancipation/text2/suicide.pdf.

[8]PBS, Slavery and the Making of America, “Responses to Enslavement,” accessed February 5, 2022,  https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/responses/docs8.html

[9]New York State Education Department, “The Conflagration of 1793,” accessed February 5, 2022, https://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov//albany/doc/fire1793.html

[10] Katy Waldman, “Slave or Enslaved Person? It’s not just an academic debate for historians of American slavery,” Slate, May 19, 2015, https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/05/historians-debate-whether-to-use-the-term-slave-or-enslaved-person.html.

[11] Daina Ramey Berry, “The Truth About Black Freedom,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/what-freedom-really-meant-juneteenth/619239.

[12]Arlene Balkansaky, “Runaway! Fugitive Slave Ads in Newspapers,” Library of Congress, accessed February 5, 2022,  https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/10/runaway-fugitive-slave-ads-in-newspapers/

[13] Giles Wright, “Moving Toward Breaking the Chains: Black New Jerseyans and the American Revolution,” in New Jersey in the American Revolution, ed. Barbara J. Mitnick (New Brunswick, NJ, Rivergate Books, 2005), 113.

[14]Historic Hudson Valley, “People Not Property: Stories of Slavery int he Colonial North,” accessed February 6, 2022, https://peoplenotproperty.hudsonvalley.org.

[15] Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell VAlley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey, (Lambertville, NJ, Wild River Books, 2018).

[16] Abraham Van Doren, “Revolutionary War Record of a Somerset County Slave,” Somerset County Historical Society, Volume III (1914), accessed February 6, 2022, http://hdl.handle.net/10929/46268.

[17] Greg Gillette, “The View From Hillsborough: Silvia Dubois,” My Central Jersey, February 4, 2016, https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/view-from-hillsborough/2017/02/07/silvia-dubois/97586960.

[18] William Allinson, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist, accessed February 6, 2022, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/allinson/allinson.html, 4-5.

[19] Marshall, 100.

[20] Witness Stones Project: Students Find and Share an Untold History of the Enslaved People of West Hartford, accessed February 6, 2022, https://we-ha.com/witness-stones-project-students-find-and-share-an-untold-history-of-the-enslaved-people-of-west-hartford.

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