Documenting New Jersey’s Overlooked Black History
Reprinted with permission from The New York Times, December 23, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/22/arts/black-cemetery-new-jersey-history.html)
History can seem thick on the ground in Hopewell, a quaint, prosperous town of 2,000 in semirural central New Jersey, not far from where Washington crossed the Delaware. A cemetery on the main street holds a grand obelisk honoring John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Next to it stands a monument topped by a stone on which another patriot stood to give a fiery speech supporting the cause of liberty. But one afternoon in late summer, a group from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia drove right past those landmarks, and followed a winding road up to a burial ground with a different story to tell.
Stoutsburg Cemetery, tucked in a clearing about halfway up Sourland Mountain, is one of the state’s oldest African-American burial grounds. It may also be one of its best chronicled, thanks to Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, two self-described ordinary small-town, middle-aged women turned “history detectives” who have spent more than a dozen years combing through wills, property deeds, tax records and other documents to recover the area’s overlooked Black history. Plenty of people research their genealogy, or undertake local history projects. But few create their own museum, as Ms. Buck and Ms. Mills did when they founded the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, which opened in 2018 in a one-room 19th-century African Methodist church not far from the cemetery. The museum may seem to tell just one hyperlocal story, but it’s part of a broader effort to paint a fuller, more accurate picture of early America. And notably, at Sourland, the story is being told by descendants themselves.
In the 19th century, Sourland Mountain — named, some say, for the poor quality of its soil — had a reputation as a remote, hardscrabble, even dangerous place. And its Black settlements did not go unnoted by white chroniclers, who sometimes peddled exaggerated stories. In 1883, a white doctor and local historian published an oral biography of Sylvia Dubois, a formerly enslaved woman who ran a rough-and-tumble tavern on the mountain (and who was said to have lived to the age of 115). A few years earlier, in 1880, a correspondent from The New York Times had come through. He was there to cover a sensational murder trial, but ended up filing a long dispatch under the blaring headline “A REMARKABLE COLONY OF BARBARIANS IN THE MIDST OF CIVILIZATION.” The article traced the settlement’s origins to William Stives, a “mulatto” Revolutionary War veteran who had married a Native American woman and built a cabin in the “bleak and uninhabited” hills. But it mostly expressed horror at the inhabitants’ “lawless character” and their reputation for rampant “miscegenation,” as evidenced by the appearance of many couples he saw. “That one really got to me,” Ms. Buck, whose husband’s aunt is a descendant of Stives, said of the article. “They’re calling my in-laws barbarians?”
Ms. Buck and Ms. Mills never located Stives’s grave, as they had hoped. But they did find records of his military pension application and his discharge papers — signed, they were stunned to see, by George Washington. They also uncovered the story of another pioneer, Friday Truehart, Mills’s fourth-great-grandfather, who arrived from Charleston, S.C., in 1780 at age 13 with his enslaver, a minister named Oliver Hart. A 19th-century newspaper article said Truehart had been born in Africa, and named for Friday in “Robinson Crusoe” by a ship’s captain. But then Ms. Mills found Hart’s transcribed diary, which included an entry noting the purchase of 4-year-old Friday and his mother, Dinah, along with the child’s precise birth date — Friday, May 29, 1767. Ms. Mills calls learning how Truehart (who was freed in 1802) arrived in Hopewell “one of the most exciting discoveries of my life.”
Through their research, the two women have connected with white people whose history is intertwined with the cemetery. Among them is Ted Blew, the fifth-great-grandson of the man who enslaved Tom Blew, whose son Moses is buried at Stoutsburg. Mr. Blew met Ms. Buck and Ms. Mills in 2018, when they spoke at a Blew family reunion. He had known from wills that his ancestors owned slaves. But until he visited Stoutsburg, he said, that fact was just “words on a page.” “The cemetery has really opened our eyes to this part of our family history,” he said.
When the Museum of the American Revolution sent Ms. Buck and Ms. Mills the 1801 poll list with Hagerman’s name, the two women immediately spotted Tom Blew’s name, along with that of another Black man from the community. And the researchers are still puzzling over how to read a third name. Is it “Isaac Blew”? Or “Jude Blew” — as Tom’s wife, Judith, who is also buried at Stoutsburg, was referred to in other documents? If so, it would be an anomaly. Under the law at the time, only widows and unmarried women could vote. And in 1801 Tom Blew was still alive.