Few people are aware of the important role that New Jersey played in the Underground Railroad Movement and how central this role was in the successful freeing of tens of thousands of Africans held in bondage in the American South. More important even than numbers freed, though, is the abstract contribution towards emancipation made by New Jersey residents, black and white, who participated in the state’s Underground Railroad network.
Despite its northern locale, New Jersey was not a “free state”–one which fugitive slaves could reach and find freedom. To the contrary, New Jersey participated in the practice of slavery almost from the time the first African slaves arrived in North America at the beginning of the 17th century. By 1726, New Jersey slaves numbered roughly 2,600, approximately 8% of the colony’s population at the time. Twenty years later, this number had nearly doubled.
Slavery continued to be widespread across the state in the 18th Century, despite the fact that several blacks, including Burlington County’s Oliver Cromwell, crossed the Delaware River with George Washington in the Battle of Trenton in 1776–marking a turning point in the Revolutionary War.
Thirty years after the start of the Underground Railroad, eighteen slaves were still recorded in New Jersey–marking our state the last state in the North to still hold slaves. It was not until 1865, with the ratifying of the Thirteenth Amendment that brought to an end to the presence of bondage on New Jersey soil. Any remaining slaves in America were finally freed by this amendment. The courage of the men and women who traveled through and settled in New Jersey via the Underground Railroad, and the courage of those who assisted in the Railroad’s operations in this state is therefore all the more remarkable.
Unlike some other northern states, New Jersey’s laws required that fugitive slaves from other states apprehended or residing in New Jersey be returned to their owners. However, this fact did not prevent many brave runaway slaves who, reaching New Jersey from the South, helped to make New Jersey the state with the most all-black Underground Railroad sanctuaries. A significant number of fugitive slaves remained in these communities (located in mostly rural southern New Jersey) because they afforded physical safety in the sheer number of slaves they harbored and were home to many free black and Quaker abolitionists.
New Jersey received fugitives mainly from the slave states of Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Centrally located between two of the most active Underground Railroad metropolitan centers, Philadelphia and New York City, New Jersey formed a critical segment of the Railroad’s northern bound “tracks,” or system of moving runaway slaves northward.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Underground Railroad in New Jersey is its ties to two of the most celebrated Railroad “conductors,” who were an integral part of its success–Harriet Tubman and William Still.
Harriet Tubman was known along the Underground Railroad as “Moses of her people” and “Black Moses.” Born into slavery in 1820, she escaped from a farm on the Eastern shore of Maryland to the North in 1849 by way of the Underground Railroad. During the summer of 1849, and for several summers following, Ms. Tubman worked as a cook in hotels in Cape May, so that she could earn money to fulfill her promise to free other slaves. Between 1850 and 1860, Ms. Tubman made 19 successful trips back into Maryland and helped over 300 slaves escape to freedom in the North, passing through New Jersey on some of her trips to Maryland and back.
William Still, often referred to as the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” was born a free African-American in Burlington County in 1821. After teaching himself to read and write, Mr. Still moved to Philadelphia, where he joined the antislavery movement. As a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and then as director of the General Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, Mr. Still managed the Committee finances, which funded Harriet Tubman’s raids to free slaves. During his fourteen years of service with the Underground Railroad, he established a network of safehouses and helped as many as 60 runaways a month escape to freedom, often hiding them in his own home.
A large segment of the Underground Railroad’s northeastern corridor, New Jersey houses a number of still-existing sites which served as “stations” during the Railroad’s operations. Four of these sites are registered as Underground Railroad Historical Sites with the National Park Service, including: The Grimes Homestead in Mountain Lakes, Morris County; Peter Mott House in Lawnside, Camden County; Bethel AME Church in Greenwich (originally Springtown), Cumberland County; and the Mount Zion AME Church in Swedesboro/Woolwich (originally Small Gloucester), Gloucester County.
The Greenwich line that began in Springtown was one of the most well-known Underground Railroad routes. Twenty-five miles north of Springtown, Small Gloucester served as another station on this line, which eventually continued north to Mount Holly, Burlington, and finally Jersey City. For more than 10 years, Harriet Tubman helped operate this line.
Identifying Underground Railroad sites in New Jersey is a continuous work in progress, given the secrecy surrounding station operations which was necessary at the time. The New Jersey Historical Commission has conducted extensive research on the subject of the Underground Railroad in New Jersey and recently published a report on its findings, titled “Steal Away, Steal Away…”: A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey. In addition to several of the sites mentioned previously, the Commission’s report includes information about additional Underground Railroad locations in Salem, Camden, Burlington, Mercer, Middlesex, and Warren Counties.
Released last year, the Commission’s report is the culmination of the Underground Railroad Project, which was made possible through legislation sponsored by several of my colleagues in the State Senate. The resulting report is the most extensive documentation to-date of the Railroad’s operations in the state, and will no-doubt serve as a resource for future generations who wish to explore the subject. I hope that it will also draw attention to the critical need for preservation efforts as more and more residents become educated about its subject matter, and recognize that a central piece of American history and the worldwide struggle for human rights struggle took place in our very own backyards.
There are few occurrences in the history of our nation which have shaped our country more fundamentally than the eradication of slavery on American soil. The birth of the Underground Railroad was perhaps the most important factor contributing to the chain of events which led to the Civil War and the eventual death of slavery in this country, and the fugitive slaves who risked their freedom again and again so that others might experience the meaning of liberty are truly heroes of American history.
In one of his famous letters, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote of Harriet Tubman: “…a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet in point of courage, shrewdness, and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-man, she was without equal.”
How rich in liberty are we as a nation, that Ms. Tubman laid her tracks upon New Jersey soil.
Senator Gill represents the 34th legislative district, which includes parts of Essex and Passaic Counties. The senator is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Economic Growth, Agriculture and Tourism Committee.