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Historic Havens: Black History in Fair Haven

By Lori Draz

This Black History Month, Historic Havens celebrates the legacy of the many Black people who played an important role in Monmouth County history.

Many towns like Red Bank and Fair Haven had well-established Black neighborhoods that often surrounded a church. In Fair Haven, you will find Fisk Chapel also known at Bicentennial Hall. The building has had quite a journey since it was built in 1858. 

The roots of Fisk Chapel date back to a small church on Browns Lane, which sadly burned shortly after it was built. The congregants were so devoted that they would walk miles in all kinds of weather to worship in Red Bank. Their passion inspired General Clinton B. Fisk to build houses and a Methodist church in Fair Haven’s Black section. Fisk was a remarkable man who, in addition to being one of Lincoln’s officers during the Civil War, was also a candidate for the governor of New Jersey in 1886 and the Prohibition Party’s candidate for U.S. President in 1888. Fisk was also a summer resident in Rumson. When the chapel was completed in 1882, it was dedicated to him. Later, the street would be renamed Fisk Street in his honor as well.

In 1975, the elders of Fisk Chapel had outgrown the church. Rather than demolish it, they sold the church to the borough for $1, but to move the church to its Cedar Avenue location, it had to be cut in half so it could navigate around the corner. It was moved in 1976, hence its name Bicentennial Hall. Some in town wanted to demolish the church, due to damages incurred during the move, but the Historic Association of Fair Haven, formed in 1995, recognized the important role the church played in the original history of Black people in Fair Haven and vigorously defended its restoration. 

Patricia Drummond, recently retired president of the Fair Haven Historical Association (FHHA), was one its greatest advocates. She and a rotating group of FHHA presidents began hosting their annual Garden Parties to raise the essential funds to conduct the numerous chapel restorations.

The church was repainted to its unique green color to be accurate to its period color. The stained-glass windows had to be painstakingly recased due to wood rot, and it was Drummond who stood with the woodworkers to supervise every detail. The windows are important as they marked a real accomplishment of the parish’s growth. In the church’s early days, the congregation made faux stained-glass windows by pasting on colored paper until they could afford the real thing, so they became precious. 

Now, Fisk Chapel or Bicentennial Hall is not a house of worship, but it is still a community focal point which hosts a variety of club meeting and borough functions. Fisk Chapel is the only place in Fair Haven that is listed on both the State and National Historic Registers. 

As we mentioned, Fisk Chapel’s roots can be traced back to Browns Lane, and Drummond shared this charming story about one of Fair Haven’s most memorable residents. Originally, Browns Lane was home to a string of small homes all owned by members of the Brown family. One by one, the homes were demolished, but Jake Brown’s home was one of the last to survive. Drummond and a friend were out for a walk when the stumbled on a small home with an open door and were delighted to be invited in by none other than Jake Brown. Brown was well-known to all for riding his bicycle every day to his job at Monmouth Park Racetrack which he did well into his 80s. He was also a charmer who tipped his hat to every lady he met along the way. When they entered his humble home, they found barely any furniture, save for a big upright piano. Brown, now quite elderly, asked if the ladies if they would like him to play, and he spent hours playing song after song from a huge stack of sheet music. “I will never forget that very special moment,” Drummond recalled. We hope you’ll think of Jake too when you travel on Browns Lane.

Another place to visit is Williams, Albert and Robards Park, overlooking the Navesink River at the end of DeNormandie Avenue. This blissful, open space honors the many generations of the Williams family who believed in sharing their good fortune by allowing the public to have access to their private homestead’s beach.

The manicured spot, with four stone benches and paved paths sits on the site of a home built in 1853 by Charles Williams, a free Black man who maintained the horses at Rumson’s spectacular Rohallion Estates. Williams and his fiancée, Julia, were gifted this land as a wedding gift from the estate, and they lived there the rest of their lives. The Williams, Albert and Robards family descendants also used the home, and in fact, family member Nathan J. Williams helped build Fisk Chapel.

The Fair Haven Parks & Recreation Deptartment handled the project plan, construction oversight, and the implementation of dedication benches, dedication plaque and signage to create this is a peaceful place to reflect.

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