By Renée S. Gordon
“But if after we have made such a declaration to the world, we continue to hold our fellow creatures in slavery, our words must rise up in judgment against us, and by the breath of our own mouths we shall stand condemned.”
–John Cooper 1778
In 1623, the first European settlers, and the first slaves, in what is now the state of New Jersey, were Dutch and Africans who constructed Fort Nassau. From this location they traded with the Lenni-Lenape on the current site of nearby Gloucester City.
The English took over the land and in March of 1664. New Netherlands was part of the territory given to the Duke of York by King Charles II. He, three months later, gave the land between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers to Lord Berkeley and Sir Carteret, the former governor of the Isle of Jersey in England. During their proprietorship, the importation of slaves was actively encouraged with the granting of 60-acres of land for each slave a colonist imported.
In 1676, the colony was divided into two sections with East Jersey being settled by English immigrants and transplanted Puritans and West Jersey, having been sold by Berkeley for $5,000, being settled by Quakers. Crown Colony status was granted in1702 but New Jersey remained a province of New York until 1738 when it was deemed independent.
New Jersey’s stance on the economic importance of the slave trade had been made clear in 1675, when the first slavery related laws, concerning the penalties for transporting or harboring fugitives, were established. The institution flourished through all of the early political changes and by 1726 there were more than 2000 enslaved individuals.
In 1744, the colony refused to place a tariff on the importation of slaves, thereby setting the stage for it to become heavily entrenched in the trade, and fifteen years later many Pennsylvania slave traders relocated across the river to avoid the taxes placed on slave sales.
While some New Jersey Quakers were slave owners and traders, others were abolitionists and anti-slavery activists. In 1775, they requested that it be outlawed. It was not, but a series of laws were passed that governed their treatment, including a 1788 law that required that slaves be taught to read and write. By 1800, there were 12,422 documented slaves in New Jersey. A gradual emancipation act was passed in 1804 that freed every child born in the state after February, males at the age of 25 and females at 21. An 1818 law declared that NJ slaves could not be sold out of state, and in 1846 the less than 1,000 remaining slaves were declared slaves for life. New Jersey’s last 18 slaves were emancipated as a result of the Civil War.
Camden, located directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, stood at the crossroads of African American history in the U.S. and an exploration of its historic sites sheds light on numerous aspects of slavery in colonial and ante-bellum America. It should be noted that there were several black communities in the area, including Timbuctoo and Fettersville. Timbuctoo was founded in the 1820s near modern day Mt. Holly. It remains the only area settled by African Americans named after a city in Africa.
Fettersville, an area in South Camden, that was approximately 22 square blocks, was a large free black community established in 1833. The land belonged to, and was named after, Richard Fetters. He divided his property into smaller lots and sold it at reasonable rates. The land sold rapidly because of its proximity to the Delaware and the ferries to Philadelphia.
Macedonia AME Church was founded in 1832, ten years after Rev. Brown left South Carolina because his church had been destroyed by fire. After initially living in Philadelphia he purchased land in Camden to construct a church at Third and Spruce Sts. It was completed in 1838 and is the oldest black institution in Camden. The church is said to have been a station on the UGRR (Underground Railroad) and, due to its proximity to the water, was initially the first stop in the state.
Documents prove that there was ferry service across the Delaware as early as 1688 and many buildings connected with its use were constructed. The Benjamin Cooper House, Point and Erie Sts., is a stone Dutch colonial dating from the early 1700s that served as the ferry house. During the Revolution, it functioned as British headquarters.
Based on lower tariffs in New Jersey, slave ships docked at ports in Camden not Philadelphia. Slave sales were held at Cooper’s Ferry, now Dr. Ulysses S. Wiggins Waterfront Park, until 1765. Nearby Petty’s Island, the 3rd largest in the Delaware, originally a Native American settlement, was used as a slave depot. The Quaker Coopers owned the largest portion of the island.
The Camden County Historical Society, 1900 Park Blvd., is an ideal destination when exploring the area’s history and African American experience. The society complex consists of three major facilities, a research library, a museum and the historic Pomona Hall.
The library houses 20,000 books and maps, diaries, newspapers and genealogical materials. It boasts the largest collection of historic items on Camden County and the Delaware Valley in the area.
The 2-story museum wing interprets history from the indigenous tribes through Camden’s industrial era. Displays highlight Campbell Soup and RCA. An authentic 1777 Cheval-De-Frise, a barricade placed in the river to stop British ships, is particularly unique.
The society’s true gem is Pomona Hall, the 1726 plantation home of a wealthy Quaker. William Cooper Jr., owner of a single slave, built the home, probably using slave labor.
In 1788 the house doubled in size and at that time owner Marmaduke Cooper owned 14 slaves. Interestingly, in 1780, after one year of fruitless persuasion, the Haddonfield Quakers had disowned Marmaduke for refusing to free his slaves.
House tours begin in the original house, two rooms deep and two rooms high, furnished with period reproductions.
The original floorboards and woodwork are notable throughout. On the first floor the prayer closet in the living room is unusual in that it is one of only two extant. The dining room is adjacent to a huge open-hearth kitchen and the pass-through between the rooms is also of note. Marmaduke’s office features the oldest item in the house, a leaden standish, used to mix ink.
The staircase leading to the five rooms on the second level is original. The master bedroom is furnished with antiques from the family and a large sitting room is filled with heirlooms and has a coffin door that once led outside.
A small room on this level is outfitted, based on the inventory from Hannah Dent Cooper’s will, as a slave’s room. One can clearly see that a slave’s work never ended. Visitors then enter a small museum that has displays on the Underground Railroad and Slavery in the County. Artifacts and facsimile documents interpret little known aspects of Northern slavery.
The Camden County Historical Society has an excellent website, www.cchsnj.com, filled with information on tours, hours, special events, educational programs and an outstanding 7-minute video, “Slave Ships on the Delaware.”
New Jersey has one of the most interesting, diverse and disconcerting African American histories of any area.
Think about it, the state with the greatest number of UGRR stations was also the last northern state to free its slaves. Camden County is where much of this history took place. It is less than 10-miles from Philadelphia and when you make the trip you are following a route to freedom. Make the journey.
I wish you smooth and unfettered travels!