Echoes of the Past

South Jersey communities built long ago by African-Americans struggle to keep pace in the modern world.

Naomi Morris stands in front of the first row of pews at the center of Bethel Othello African Methodist Episcopal Church. Sturdy and strong, she lovingly chronicles the history of the church, built in 1810, and of the historic black settlement of Springtown in Cumberland County. It is her church for sure, a sacred space where she has spent all her life as a loyal and active parishioner.

As church trustee and steward, the 70-year-old known to all in town as Miss Morris is a one-woman link to the church’s distant role as a humble place where blacks escaping enslavement along the Underground Railroad found safety and helping hands. She embraces the church as the center of a black-forged community where members could come to terms with the past and prepare for an uncertain future. Miss Morris, one of five who still attend the Sunday morning service, says Springtown is not what it used to be. “The young people just don’t like the country, so they move away,” she says, “and the old folks are getting older or have passed on. I remember the old days, when black farmers who lived nearby planted and harvested okra, asparagus, corn, and other crops. We all knew and cared for each other long ago. We were all related, because we shared with one another, and all the children in Springtown were cared for and went to church.” Miss Morris says that race seemed immaterial then. “Black and white farmers got along rather well,” she says, “often helping each other during harvest time.” But she remembers Ku Klux Klan activity here in the early 1940s. “Some nights our parents told us the Klan was coming through,” she says, “so it was lights out at night.”

Miss Morris bridges that chilling long-ago reality with today’s opportunity to spread her gospel—the gospel of local history—to a group of 25 Garden State teachers on a tour of South Jersey towns founded by African-Americans. Her words put names and faces on places not generally discussed in most of the state’s history classes. “I hope people will come to know more about these little communities and how much we want to be remembered for what we once were,” she says. Her passion is testament to the heritage of Springtown and other towns like it. Her words fuel the power of place and the tenacity of memory, leading the teachers into the lives of the anonymous African-Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who created and nurtured a way of life almost forgotten, even by their own descendants.

We board a bus from Monmouth University’s bucolic campus in West Long Branch in a driving rainstorm, the kind that seems as if it will last for a week. I don’t have an umbrella, but that’s hardly a surprise; I never seem to have an umbrella when I need one most. But on this rain-drenched bus ride across a huge swath of South Jersey, I’m pleased that at least I’m not the tour guide.

Our journey begins on the fourth day of a weeklong residential summer teachers’ seminar titled “A Reconsidered Past: New Scholarship in African-American History,” sponsored by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. So far this week, five young scholars conversant with what some still refer to as the new African-American historical scholarship have given lectures. Their approach to the past, which has been in vogue since the 1960s, emphasizes the cultural foundations of black life and its survival in slavery and freedom, the importance of gender and social class, and the centrality of memory and agitation in understanding the unique contributions of blacks to American life.

The teachers prepared for the seminar by reading several required articles and books. They have participated in critical debates pertaining to the distant past of West Africans caught up in the Atlantic slave trade, the rise and fall of American slavery, and the creativity of modern black American society. The teachers are diverse—intergenerational, interethnic, and interracial; in short, remarkably representative of New Jersey’s teachers—and a lively group they are, as teachers tend to be. As the seminar leader, I claim credit only for choosing the visiting scholars, shaping the curriculum, and giving the seminar’s keynote lecture on Sunday night. And thank God I’m not the tour guide.

Within a half-hour after setting out on our trip, we ride past upscale residential subdivisions in what was once farmland. Our guest speaker and tour guide is Wendel White, a professor of art at Richard Stockton State College and a Guggenheim fellow. His magisterial photography exhibition “Small Towns, Black Lives,” taken from his book of the same name, has toured the state since it opened in 2003 at the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville. What better way to personally encounter the resonance of the past, I thought, than to have this distinguished scholar guide us, through his unique lens, to the places and people that symbolize the legacies of blacks in South Jersey. Such legacies reveal how the past endows the present.

Southern New Jersey is part of a vast territory where the First Emancipation took place. When enslavement in New Jersey gradually ended—an 1804 act freed women and men who were the children of slaves as they reached ages 21 and 25, respectively—two generations of blacks formed communities of their own. By the end of the nineteenth century, New Jersey had well over a dozen such clusters, where blacks escaping enslavement in the Southern states joined Northern freeborn blacks; some places, most notably Whitesboro, in Cape May County, were founded by black entrepreneurs. These communities were part of the Black Town movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when black Americans in the South and North attempted to create what might be called a world within a world, in a nation bent on racial separation. New Jersey, the last Northern state to abolish enslavement, was a part of that social and cultural trend.

Stedman Graham, a management and marketing consultant too frequently identified merely as Oprah Winfrey’s significant other, grew up in Whitesboro. “Freedom is about understanding potential and being able to think, create, build, and develop that potential to its highest level utilizing the available resources,” Graham writes in White’s book. “In Whitesboro, we experienced a form of freedom as long as we stayed within our community. As we ventured out, many of us were under the impression that we didn’t have the ability to transfer that sense of freedom and confidence to the outside world. I was fortunate to discover for myself a means to heal that hole in my heart that I carried for so many years. I was able to free myself from the pain—peeling the onion and getting down to the core—to rebuild myself, creating a life based on knowledge and positive images. It is a wonderful feeling.” Graham also has been working to get towns such as Whitesboro onto the state’s travel and tourism agenda as a historical and educational destination.

Few New Jersey residents are aware of this historical chapter or of the places built and sustained by blacks over the years. Some of the settlements survive only in the memories of elders. Some places have vanished completely, subsumed by the new as the old pass on, people move out, and forgotten spaces go to seed. Yet these places where blacks, like other groups of Americans, tried to live out the American Dream on their own terms remain important to our understanding of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century black identity in the years before the civil rights movement. And, as White’s photos and the oral testimony he collected have shown, not all has been lost.

No one knows the legacy of this narrative better than White. With microphone in hand, at times standing precariously at the front of the bus, he guides us into a region that seems to some of the teachers quite unlike the New Jersey they know. South Jersey, indeed, can seem like an extension of the American South. I have a somewhat different take on what we see. The subdivisions that punctuate the South Jersey landscape, where the Black Town movement figured most prominently, mean that the state’s hinterland has been changed—geographically and demographically—forever. As these towns became bedroom communities for Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, and Princeton, they brought upwardly mobile families into South Jersey, whose counties are now among the fastest-growing in the state.

Our first stop is Elwood, on Route 561, where we see the remains of a small settlement of African-American Jews from North Philadelphia, who in the 1960s established the Adat Beyt Mosheh synagogue. The early congregants were followers of the utopian settlement’s founder, Rabbi Abel Respes. “His vision,” White says, “was to move from the crime and pollution of the inner city to a rural setting where his congregation could thrive.” The community, the most recent black settlement in South Jersey, is one example of how the region has long been a haven for sectarians seeking quieter, more homogeneous living arrangements.

We head south on the Elwood-Weymouth Road via Jackson Road to Newtonville, passing an old one-room schoolhouse on our way to the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on Ninth Street. The center shares space with the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, which is little known outside the region. Its effervescent founding director, Ralph Hunter, enthusiastically guides us through several rooms richly appointed with artifacts donated by area families, individuals, and community organizations. It fascinates the teachers, especially those new to South Jersey. Hunter estimates that there have been more than 25 black towns or settlements in South Jersey, with many still home to African-American enclaves, such as West Atco in Camden County and Morris Beach and Elwood in Atlantic County. He attributes the survival of these places to native sons and daughters moving back, interested in reconnecting with their families’ roots by attending the churches in which they were baptized, going to the barbershops where they got their hair cut, or returning to the homes that their parents and grandparents owned. “They’ve been able to go out into the corporate world and now come back home and retire,” Hunter says. “The next generation takes property over and keeps it for the next one when they’re ready to return.”

We travel south and west along Route 54—what White affectionately calls “the middle of nowhere”—past Bridgeton and on to Greenwich and Springtown and Miss Morris and her church. Standing in front of one of New Jersey’s oldest black churches, I think of Shakespeare’s Othello, which is so much about the issue of race, and of Paul Robeson, the Princeton-born actor whose performances in the title role brought him such fame. I wonder whether there’s a connection with the architecturally simple church that stands along the road or the so-named section of the township in which it sits. As Morris speaks, we sit on pews that have been used by congregations for nearly two centuries. I suspect that those still active in the mission of Bethel Othello know of the commemorative power of place, specifically the power of their church’s direct link to slavery and freedom.

We leave Springtown in a reverent mood. The sun has come out. The teachers and I speak of the poignant dignity of this place, so rich with history. Morris and her church are emblematic of what the new African-American historical scholarship focuses on: cultural survival, group agency, and the hard-won progress of black women.

Our final destination, Whitesboro, takes us through Gouldtown, which, dating back to the eighteenth century, may be the oldest black settlement in the state. We travel south on Route 50 in Cape May County to Whitesboro, where we meet Shirley Green, the proprietor of Tiffany’s Beans, Greens, and Birds, in a building she and her husband own on the town’s main street, Route 9. She proudly tells us about the history of her town. When she and her staff feed us a soul-food dinner of fried chicken, spare ribs, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, cornbread, and iced tea, it feels like home.

The dinner is an opportunity to learn more about Whitesboro, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became home to scores of blacks fleeing the violence of the infamous 1898 riot in Wilmington, North Carolina. After leaving their relatively prosperous Southern black community, they joined the extraordinary effort of George White to create a black town in South Jersey. A protégé of Booker T. Washington and a U.S. Congressman, White brought to New Jersey an entrepreneurial spirit not uncommon among black migrants in the North following Emancipation—a spirit that lives today in the work of Green and other residents of Whitesboro. After dinner, we walk a few blocks along Route 9 to the Whitesboro Historical Museum, where we learn more about George White and the early settlers who followed his lead in Whitesboro—as well as comedian Flip Wilson, one of Whitesboro’s native sons.

With the exception of Lawnside, in Camden County, South Jersey’s other black settlements did not become incorporated municipalities, which left them vulnerable to the political pressure placed on county governing bodies by developers and others seeking to exploit available land. Fortunately, there is a growing interest among preservationists, historians, and the residents of black towns to save what remains of these areas. Indeed, in recent years, New Jersey has increasingly acknowledged the role of African-American historic sites in enhancing public understanding of the state’s complicated and diverse past.

As night falls and our bus takes us out of Whitesboro for the long ride back to West Long Branch, White hands out autographed copies of the book inspired by his exhibition. We bid him farewell as we drop him off at Stockton State College. I faintly overhear conversations about the day’s experience. I close my eyes but I can’t fall asleep. So much is racing through my mind about the hallowed grounds on which we have walked.

Clement Alexander Price is the Board of Governors’ Distinguished Service Professor of History at Rutgers University–Newark and founding director of the university’s Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.

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