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African Americans in New Jersey before the Civil War

African Americans in New Jersey before the Civil War

A large and vibrant African-American community lived in New Jersey before the Civil War. On the eve of the conflict, the black population was 25, 336 out of a total of 646,699. Years after the abolition of slavery, African Americans still lacked legal and political rights. The new state constitution of 1844 restricted voting to white male citizens. African Americans in New Jersey also faced poverty, job discrimination, and racism. The Fugitive Slave Bill subjected escapees from the South to deportation. During the tense period leading up to the conflict, African-American community leaders emerged to play important roles in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad.

James Cole. Ten Dollars Reward. New Brunswick: Abraham Blauvelt, September 30, 1795.

Enslaved African Americans were first brought to colonial New Jersey by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. Slaves worked in agriculture, in trades, and as domestics. By the late eighteenth century, slavery was in decline. The Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 gave owners the rights to the labor of slaves born after July 4, 1804 until the age of twenty-five for males and twenty-one for females, at which time they were free. There were still many slaves in New Jersey after the passage of the law. According to the 1810 census, there were 10,851 enslaved Africans Americans in New Jersey out of a population of 245,562. A New Jersey law of 1846 abolished slavery, changing the status of remaining slaves to “permanent apprentices.”

Still, W[illia]m, letter, 31 North Fifth Street, Philadelphia, August 7, 1850, to [James O? Cousins, Cincinnati, Ohio]

Born a slave in Maryland in 1801, Peter Still was later sold to an Alabama slaveholder. By 1850, he had accumulated enough money to purchase his own freedom and head north, but he had to leave his wife, Vina, and children behind. In Philadelphia, he visited the Anti-Slavery Office in the hope of locating his parents and relatives, who years before had escaped to New Jersey. To his surprise, the clerk in the office was his brother William Still. In this letter from William Still describes their meeting: “my feelings became unutterable.”

Portrait, William Still. Lithograph. Engraved by John Sartain, Philadelphia.

In spite of fugitive slave laws, many African Americans escaped from the South to New Jersey by the network of safe houses, routes, and sympathizers that constituted the Underground Railroad. One "conductor" was William Still, the much older brother of Peter Still. William Still was born in New Jersey in 1821. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844 and joined the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where in a fourteen-year career, he assisted hundreds of runaway slaves. His experiences are recounted in The Underground Railroad (1876).

New Jersey Colonization Society. Historical Notes on Slavery and Colonization: With Particular Reference to the Efforts Which Have Been Made In Favor of African Colonization in New Jersey. Elizabeth-town, New Jersey. E. Sanderson, 1842.

In early nineteenth century, some New Jerseyans advocated the removal of black residents to Africa. Reverend Robert Finley of Basking Ridge played an important role in the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816. A New Jersey chapter of the society was founded in 1824, and revived in 1838. In 1853, the society purchased a ship, the Saluda, and 160,000 acres of land to be added to the Liberian colony. Ultimately, few African Americans moved to Liberia from New Jersey, where most black residents opposed the movement. This pamphlet published by the New Jersey Colonization Society gives a romanticized view of the movement.