Discovering My NJ Hometown’s Ties to Slavery—And Freedom

"My childhood playground was a part of the rich history of Burlington County, a portal to freedom during slavery."

Collage illustration of Black woman with graveyard behind her

Illustration by James O’Brien

When I learned last year that there was an artists retreat in Lambertville, I jumped at the opportunity. During the decade I’d spent writing a book about the enslaved women in my family, I’d traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana, and even returned to the town in Brazil founded by U.S. Confederate soldiers at the end of the Civil War, where I’d spent my junior year of high school. I had learned about slavery worldwide, but not about my own hometown’s deep connection to this institution, so fundamental to my family’s story. So to write my final draft, I returned to where my part of the story began, in Burlington County, about a half hour from the MarthaMOCA artists residency.

Perched on a rolling hill that gives the accompanying organic farm its name, MarthaMOCA is bounded by forest, a crane-filled pond, and every kind of fruit tree and vegetable that grows in New Jersey.  Its long, narrow driveway reminded me of Range Road, the shortcut behind McGuire Air Force and Fort Dix Army bases that my parents took to get from our house in Browns Mills to my grandparents in Cookstown.

I loved playing in the yard of my grandparents’ rental property near an African Methodist Episcopal church cemetery. The worn gravestones fascinated me. “Colored infantry” was inscribed under the names of men who’d fought in the Civil War. We moved to northern New Jersey when I was 11, but I never forgot those gravestones. When I became a reporter, I confirmed with the local VFW that the headstones belonged to Black Union soldiers. My childhood playground was a part of the rich history of Burlington County, a portal to freedom during slavery.

Burlington was the birthplace of the father of the Underground Railroad, William Still, and where Hannah Craft’s protagonist finds freedom in her book The Bondwoman’s Narrative, thought to be the first novel written by an African American woman and the only one written by a fugitive from slavery. The county is also home to Timbuctoo, a settlement started in 1826 by formerly enslaved and free Black people in a section of Westhampton.

An established stop on the Underground Railroad, Timbuctoo had more than 125 residents at its peak. What remains is the final resting place of many of them. 

Seashells were lovingly placed at one gravestone, and pennies lined the front of several markers when my sister and I visited Timbuctoo last fall. It transported me to the Gulf Coast, Mississippi, where I had placed stones at the gravesite of my enslaved great-great-grandmother years before. We didn’t have stones, but we had water, so my sister and I poured it as a libation at the Timbuctoo graves.  

My time at MarthaMOCA was a precious reprieve from the demands of my life that also gave me a portal to a past life—my own, my ancestors’—and a once-vibrant Black community in New Jersey. 

Dionne Ford is the author of Go Back and Get it: A Memoir of Race, Inheritance, and Intergenerational Healing, which comes out in April. 

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