This Black History Month, we reflect on many great accomplishments, along with some of the unfortunate details of our evolution as a nation.
New Jersey is typically not the first place that comes to mind when people mention slavery, yet New Jersey’s history of it dates back to the 1600s. New Jersey was also the last northern state to abolish slavery.
Last month, well-known historian and author Rick Geffken released his new book, “Stories of Slavery in New Jersey.” The book is a fascinating and frequently painful exploration of the state’s history, well researched and well worth the read.
It is important to remind readers that in the colonial days, Monmouth County was largely agricultural with many farms spanning 50 or more acres. Practically every street and the thousands of homes and businesses we pass each day are standing on land that served as farmland and often sites that used slave labor. Additionally, early records are spotty, especially in the history and genealogy of slaves. Couple that with so many of the properties that have been destroyed, and it is amazing that so much history has still survived. That history includes stories of the original Dutch and English settlers who brought the first enslaved people to New Jersey. By the time of the Revolutionary War, slavery was an established practice on labor-intensive farms.
Adjacent to Holmdel Park and Longstreet Farm in Holmdel is the Holmes-Hendrickson House, which is currently maintained by the Monmouth County Historical Association. Built in 1754 by Garret Hendrickson’s first cousin William Holmes, this Georgian and Dutch home had one of the county’s largest slave populations who assisted in the mixed-use farm’s activities including crops, livestock including sheep for wool, and growing flax to produce linen. Hendrickson signed a 1774 petition opposing the freeing of slaves as he needed them to work his vast acreage and to support his 12 children by three successive wives. When Hendrickson died in 1801, the inventory of his property included seven slaves – two men, Peter and Tom; one woman, Jane; three boys, Peter, Jack and Robbin; and a girl named Pheby. That is all that is known about these slaves other than that their value in total was $32,000.
Another house in Holmdel that has a history of slavery is the David Williamson House, which you can see on Newman Springs Road. David Williamson married Phebe Hendrickson, the granddaughter of Garret Hendrickson, and the two families had both been slave holders. One of those slaves was Charles Reeves who has freed and married Hannah Van Clief in 1850. The Reeves family became prominent citizens of Lincroft, as did their next four generations.
The Parker Homestead, next to Sickles Farm in Little Silver, was occupied by at least eight consecutive generations of the Parker family. The property was purchased in 1665 by brothers Peter and Joseph Parker, Quakers from Rhode Island, who also bought neighboring properties on the peninsula between the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers. The current Parker House sits on property owned by Peter Parker and is most likely not the original home. The belief was that Quakers were against slavery as a practice, but this was not true of all Quakers. In fact, numerous members of the Parker family were slaveholders for generations.
Even in death, the identity of many slaves remains uncertain. There are numerous burial grounds for slaves in the area, and certainly many more that have fallen into disrepair and obscurity. Many of the slaves’ remains were not clearly marked, but there are a few places where freed slaves and Civil War soldiers are resting. One such place is Cedar View Cemetery, directly behind St. Leo the Great Catholic Church. This cemetery had fallen into disrepair; the forgotten head and foot stones were overgrown with thorny bushes and fallen trees. Thanks to the efforts of diligent preservationists, the cemetery has been cleaned up, and it is believed to hold the remains of more than 100 African American family members, many of whom were freed slaves and United States Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War. Also, the Tinton Falls Historical Society has a plaque on its grounds where they believe slaves were buried in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was investigated by Monmouth University archaeologist Dr. Richard Veit.
In 1989, the Office of the Monmouth County Clerk in Freehold published the Black Birth Book of Monmouth County which has surprisingly rich information on slaves including their names, occupations and owners.
If you would like to learn more, Geffken will be hosting Zoom presentations, including those for the Eatontown Historical Museum on Sunday, Feb. 14; the Asbury Park Historical Society on Thursday, Feb. 18; the Parker Homestead on Sunday, Feb. 21; and the Friends of the Crawford House on Sunday, Feb. 28. Other upcoming appearances include the Long Branch Library on Tuesday, March 23; the Red Bank Public Library on Wednesday, March 31; and the Monmouth County Genealogy Society on Tuesday, April 20. See these organizations’ websites for details. “Stories of Slavery in New Jersey” is available at Barnes & Noble, Costco and other national outlets.