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Slavery's Legacy Is Written All Over North Jersey, If You Know Where to Look

New Jersey was known as the slave state of the North, and our early economy was built on unpaid labor.

New Jersey residents might like to think that, as Northerners, we don't share the South's brutal slave history.

We would be wrong.

"New Jersey was known as the 'slave state of the North,' " said Elaine Buck, who co-founded the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Hopewell with Beverly Mills in 2018.

The legacy of slavery is hidden in plain sight all over the map, in family names like Berkeley, Carteret, Beverwyck, Morris, Livingston and Schuyler, whose wealth and power was founded, in part, on slave labor.

In 1800, there were about 12,000 slaves in the state. By 1830, New Jersey was home to more than two-thirds of the entire slave population of the North.

Bergen County was the state's slaveholding center. Scholars estimate that by the late 1700s, enslaved people made up about 20% of Bergen's population and 40% of its labor force.

Its economy thrived thanks to the unpaid Black laborers who worked its plantations, small farms, urban workshops, mines and especially its ports.

New Jersey slaveholders didn't give up this bounty lightly; the state was the last in the North to outlaw slavery. Even when legislation was finally passed in 1804, "freed" slaves were required to serve lengthy apprenticeships, which weren’t much different from slavery, according to the Princeton and Slavery Project.

The last 16 enslaved people in New Jersey were not freed until 1866, when the state reluctantly ratified the 13th Amendment.

Susan Shutte, a historian at Ringwood State Park, where slave labor was used in the mines, forges and manor house, says visitors are often “gobsmacked” to learn about New Jersey’s slave history.

One reason for our ignorance is that the state’s legacy is often airbrushed in schools due to Southern influence on the textbook industry and a scarcity of hard data, said Mills.

Another is that little of their history was recorded by slaves themselves, who were denied access to education and the means to read and write. Instead, their history was documented through the tax records, deeds and property lists of wealthy white landowners. Supporting abolition was so dangerous that the underground railroad and other activities were conducted in utmost secrecy and strictly by word of mouth.

The relentless pace of development in New Jersey has also obscured Black history. In their book, "If These Stones Could Talk," Mills and Buck document their 2006 struggle to save an African American burial ground from being obliterated by a homeowner trying to expand his driveway.

Theirs was a rare success. Most of New Jersey's slave sites have been paved over and awareness of what’s underneath is fading.