2007-03-08 / Front Page
African-Americans played key role in county history
Author of book hopes people will get over 'historic amnesia'
BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP
In an effort to help the area overcome its amnesia with regard to this history, author Graham Russell Hodges published a book in 1997 titled "Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865" in cooperation with the Friends of the Monmouth County Park System and with support from the New Jersey Historical Commission.
A professor of early American and New York City history at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., since 1986, Hodges is also the author of other books about African-Americans' experiences such as "Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863." Hodges, who is currently teaching in China, recently took time out to answer questions via e-mail about his book and the history of slavery in Monmouth County.
When asked why he wrote the book, Hodges replied, "After a number of years doing research in Monmouth on African-Americans and doing two talks for the park system there, which involved creating very long pamphlets, all agreed to create a book."
Hodges explains in his book that by the first decade of the 18th century, a minority of Monmouth County's freeholders were slaveholders. Many of the county's slaveholders came from New Netherland, which was a Dutch province founded in 1624 consisting mostly of what is known today as the New York tri-state area.
According to Hodges, the Dutch and the Portuguese dominated the world slave market and used Africans to develop New Netherland's infrastructure. Hodges posits that slavery seems to have been predicated on the assumption that non-Christians, especially those taken in battles, could ethically be held in bondage.
According to Hodges, the "need" for slaves in developing Monmouth County's first farms "was evident to the first purchasers of land by the Portuguese and the Dutch." He explained that the Monmouth Patent, which was a set of guidelines that helped the first settlers establish themselves in Monmouth County, required those coming in to bring one or two slaves or indentured servants with them. The slaves helped build the first houses in the county, cleared the land of forests and other growth for farms, and planted and raised crops, according to Hodges.
The slaves arrived in central New Jersey in small lots from the West Indies and Africa. Slaves imported into Upper Freehold came from ports in Philadelphia, according to Hodges, as well as from Perth Amboy in Middlesex County.
Once in Monmouth County, slaves lived in "dark and airless upper stories of homes, in barns and in outbuildings," according to Hodges.
By 1726, the Monmouth County slave population rose to 433 registered slaves, which amounted to 9 percent of the county's total population at that time, according to Hodges.
The East Jersey Legislature codified laws for blacks in 1704. Some laws prohibited the sale of rum, wine, beer, cider and "other strong drink" to blacks. Other laws told white people they would be rewarded for arresting wandering slaves and returning them to their masters for whipping, according to Hodges.
In 1714, a new law required any master wanting to free a slave to post a $200 bond or pay the state $20 annually for the slave's maintenance. According to Hodges, this new law curbed voluntary manumissions (or releases from slavery) in New Jersey.
By the second decade of the 18th century, Hodges said African-Americans in Monmouth County had been stripped of most of their civil rights by repressive legislation. The slave codes lasted through the Colonial period.
In the face of this oppression, Upper Freehold Quaker Richard Waln, of Walnford, worked to protect the rights of all blacks and wrote to the Legislature, according to Hodges. Other Quaker homes in Upper Freehold served as safe houses on the Underground Railroad.
When asked if he thought it was odd that towns such as Upper Freehold had slave owners and abolitionists living side by side, Hodges replied, "Not really, though the standard was to have one ethnicity per town."
Hodges said Monmouth County was interesting to study since "Monmouth was the most diverse county so [it was] best for studying slavery among various ethnicities and religions."
Economics and income factored into slavery's continuation in Monmouth County after the Revolutionary War, during which some blacks served active duty, according to Hodges. Between 1784 and 1808, slaveholders in Middletown, Upper Freehold and Shrewsbury had more than five times the amount of land, four times the amount of cattle and five times the amount of horses than residents who did not have bonds people, according to Hodges.
When slaves tried to flee, masters often took out newspaper ads, according to Hodges.
One such ad, which is quoted in Hodges' book, reads, "Jacob, of Upper Freehold, went from work at his plow and was without shoes or stockings and no other clothes but an Aznabrig [type of fabric] shirt and trousers and an old ragged waistcoat and old hat."
According to Hodges, such descriptions were thought to better facilitate the identification and capture of runaways. Descriptions in such ads of scars and deformities serve as evidence to Hodges that some masters "corrected" slaves in brutal fashions.
The death of slavery in Monmouth County was slow, and free African-Americans did not outnumber slaves until 1830. As late as 1850, 75 Monmouth blacks remained enslaved, according to Hodges' research.
With the exception of New Jersey, every northern state had passed an immediate or gradual emancipation act by 1799. In 1799, after New York passed its gradual emancipation act, New Jersey was still the only state north of Delaware and Maryland to remain irresolute in setting a timetable for ending slavery there. It wasn't until 1804 that New Jersey actually passed an emancipation act for the gradual ending of slavery.
The act stated that any slave born before July 4, 1804, could remain enslaved for life but any slave's child born after that date would be free.
Between 1800 and 1810, the number of slaves in Monmouth County dropped from 1,633 to 1,504, according to Hodges. The 1830 U.S. Census, which was the first census taken after the enactment of the 1804 law, showed that the law had begun to have an effect on the slave population in Monmouth County. The free black population rose to 2,134, which was 90 percent of the African-American population in the county at that time.
The census notes that in Shrewsbury and Upper Freehold one-third of the free black population actually still lived in white households.
When asked why he thought that was so, Hodges replied, "Whites almost never helped free blacks set up independent households or give them start-up cash. Often, blacks had to work for whites as cottagers."
Monmouth County farmers and former slave owners used apprenticeships to retain the labor of former slaves, and these apprentices were called cottagers.
Hodges pointed out that the tax lists in Upper Freehold for 1839 show a free black society trying to survive as it cites that 61 "colored persons" on the list were at the municipal tax level.
During the 1850s, a tiny black middle class started emerging in Monmouth County, and in Upper Freehold Aaron Cole and Aaron Miller each had more than $5,000, according to Hodges.
In 1860, a landowning black population started emerging in Upper Freehold, as William Larebe is shown on the tax rolls to have $4,500 worth of property, according to Hodges.
In 1863, New Jersey Gov. Joel Park, a Monmouth County native, denied the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment to end slavery was also initially defeated in New Jersey. Black men were not enfranchised in New Jersey until 1870, nor were all women until 1920.
When asked why he believes New Jersey was such a holdout state when it came to wanting to abolish slavery, Hodges replied, "Dutch and Huguenot slave masters believed it was their revolutionary property rights. Plus [there was a] general belief in black inferiority."
Hodges said he was surprised at the extent of slavery in the 19th century, long after gradual emancipation.
"I was stunned to find sales notices in the 1840s and one runaway notice in 1857," he said.
There is a county record that shows that as late as 1920 an African-American mother "gave" her son and daughter to the Meirs family. Both children worked on Meirs properties until their deaths. According to the document, "Mary" worked as a "cook and a skilled domestic" at the Meirs home in the Cream Ridge section of Upper Freehold until her death.
When asked why he thinks it is important for people who live in this area to know about this history, Hodges said, "Because African-Americans contributed heavily to the county's development without compensation."
When asked if he thinks Upper Freehold and surrounding towns are predominantly white today because of the history of slavery in the area, Hodges replied, "Certainly there was little incentive for blacks to stay there."
When asked how he feels about some of the history books written about the area failing to discuss its history of slavery, Hodges said, "Then the history books are incomplete."
When asked if he believes history books and other presentations of the area's history, such as the narrative for the new scenic byway tour through Upper Freehold, should include the history of slavery in the area, Hodges said, "Of course.
"This is just part of 'historic amnesia,' " he added, "and people's attitudes toward the history of slavery are often good indicators of their attitudes on race today."