National Park Service adds Newark Black Church site to Underground Railroad network

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In the early 19th century, some of Newark’s free black residents worked as horse-drawn carriage drivers ferrying passengers to and from places like Philadelphia, Elizabeth, and Jersey City, with its ferries to New York. They were the forerunners of the train conductors, bus drivers, and commuter airplane pilots that made Newark the public transit hub it remains today.

These horse-drawn carriage drivers were also among the city’s black businessmen who purchased the property needed to vote and fund a local “station” of the Underground Railroad, the pre-Civil War escape route of the city. slavery to less hostile states and Canada, according to the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Newark Station was a house owned by a black man named Jacob King. And next to it was a small house of worship known, in the vernacular of the time, as the Presbyterian Plane Street Colored Church, built in 1836.

Noelle Lorraine Williams, who directs the African American The New Jersey Historical Commission’s History Program requested that the site be included as a stop along the Underground Railroad, and the National Park Service approved the request in April.

She and Rutgers University, which owns the site where the church stood, emphasized inclusion as the nation prepares to celebrate the June 19 holiday this weekend.

“Even though New Jersey still enslaved black people even after June 19, we all celebrate it in solidarity with black empowerment everywhere in the United States,” Williams said, referring to the state’s 16 freed residents. after the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The June 19 holiday recognizes June 19, 1865, the date Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaimed the end of slavery and the Civil War in Texas, the last Confederate resistance, after that Lincoln signed the proclamation in 1863.

“Although small, the community on and near Plane Street Colored Church/Frederick Douglas Field would form the core of Newark’s black and UGRR anti-slavery education work,” Williams wrote in the application to designate the church l one of the Park Service 700. Underground Railroad to Freedom sites.

The National Park Service has named the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Church site in Newark part of the National Underground Railroad in Freedom. The site of the church, demolished in the early 20th century, is now a sports complex at Rutgers University of Newark named after abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who spoke there in 1849.New Jersey Historical Commission

The request was one of 16 the Park Service has granted this year for UGRR sites in several states, including the Rensalier-Huntoon Underground Railroad Memorial at Patson. The memorial marks the site of an UGRR station owned and occupied by industrialist Josiah Huntoon and his assistant, William Van Renselier, which, thanks to a lighted cupola, was visible to freedom seekers traveling in the dark above Garret Mountain.

Newark Church was located on what is now a Rutgers University Newark football and softball complex, named for abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who spoke at the church in 1849 The university plans to place a plaque at the site at University Avenue and Warren Street this fall commemorating the church and its official part in the UGRR network.

King’s house was used to house freedom seekers, and he and other hosts were known as “Stationmasters”. Williams’ app provided a detailed history of the Plane Street Church and its leaders and placed them within the larger context of the UGRR network from Maryland to Maine.

Williams, 46, a resident of the Ironbound section of Newark, wrote in the app that much of New Jersey’s UGRR historical records focus on the central and southern parts of the state, such as the Harriett Tubman Museum in Cape May. But Williams, a former student of Rutgers Newark, says Newark played a vital role in the escape route from slavery. However, this was not emphasized because its engineers sought to keep their activities secret from local white supremacists.

She cited advertisements in local newspapers of that time, one for a meeting held by white residents intended “to prevent the illegal residence in the city of free negroes or those who falsely declare themselves free”, and another at the looking for a runaway “who claims to be free.

Williams noted that the Plane Street Church was established by African Americans opposed to the separate pews of First Presbyterian Church on Broad Street. Its leaders included nationally known personalities, Samuel Cornish, a Presbyterian minister and editor of America’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, and founder of the American Anti-Slavery Societyrun by fellow Americans of mixed race.

The congregation eventually moved out and became known as the 13th Avenue Presbyterian Church, housed in a historic Romanesque structure. demolished in the 1970s to make room for housing.

Before the June 19 holiday was created—before the Emancipation Proclamation, by the way—Williams Britain’s abolition of slavery inspired Plane Street church leaders, and they regularly celebrated the August 1 holiday marking its effective date in 1834.

“In Newark, for example, people like Samuel Cornish…were having luncheons and celebrations, and they were called August Day celebrations,” Williams said. it was an example of a quote-unquote peaceful emancipation process. It can also happen in the United States. ”

British emancipation was an attractive model for abolitionists in the United States because it was not accompanied by a bloody civil war. In any case, Williams said popular opposition to slavery centered around the church, in addition to her role in the Underground Railroad, contributed to Park Service officials’ appreciation of her historical significance.

“It was part of the discussions they had,” Williams said. “And that’s actually part of the request from the National Park Service, that I was able to show that they had these anti-slavery meetings at the church.”

Williams, also a visual artist, is coordinating a Juneteenth event on June 25, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at a 17th-century house in Middletown, “Under the Planks: Whispers of the Enslaved at Marlpit Hall.” Register on https://bit.ly/Beneaththefloorboards.

Noelle Lorraine Williams, director of the New Jersey Historical Commission's African American History Program

Noelle Lorraine Williams, director of the New Jersey Historical Commission’s African American History Program, tours the former site of the colorful Plane Street Church, now Frederick Douglass Field on University Avenue in Newark. 06/16/2022Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance

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Steve Strunsky can be reached at [email protected]

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