Summer Reading 2018: Understanding Black Life in NJ, From 1664 to Today

According to author Graham Russell Hodges, “Black New Jersey” speaks to African-American aspirations for freedom and equality and about our nation’s legacies of slavery and racism

2018 summer graham hodges
The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.

“Black New Jersey covers the complex history of people of African descent in New Jersey, a state that today is among the most diverse, urbanized, and densely populated in the Union. New Jersey is also now one of the five most racially segregated states in America … A slave society from its inception, New Jersey was the last state in the north to initiate gradual emancipation in 1804 … Some of its white residents were the most intransigent defenders of slavery and segregation; others were among the sharpest critics … Those paradoxes of slavery and freedom run throughout this book.” — from the author’s introduction

Reconstruction to World War I

Ministers, who made up a prominent portion of the black middle class, faced racial limits. The Reverend William Paul Robeson had escaped in 1858 via the Underground Railroad from servitude in eastern North Carolina to freedom in Pennsylvania. Robeson joined a Union Army labor battalion during the Civil War and later received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Lincoln University. During his years of study, Robeson met and married Maria Louisa Bustill, whose family descended from Cyrus Bustill. Born a slave in Burlington, Cyrus later bought his freedom, served as a baker for the Patriots in the Revolutionary War, and was a founder of the Free African Society in Philadelphia. Though they were not social equals to the Bustills, the Robesons prospered. Reverend Robeson became pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, a black congregation funded and controlled by local wealthy white Presbyterians. Robeson shaped the congregation into a center of civic and social activity. He defended the community interest and earned universal respect. The couple had seven children (two died in infancy), one of whom, Paul (born 1898), became world famous for his singing, acting, and political activism.

Despite the family’s central place in Princeton society, Robeson Sr. could not place his eldest son, William, at the local college, Princeton University. After his son was rebuffed in 1900, Reverend Robeson appealed in person to Woodrow Wilson, then president of the university. Wilson refused to help and, after the minister beseeched him several times, angrily retorted that the school would not accept “colored” students. Wilson doubtless did not care, but his crass, vicious rejection of William Drew Robeson smudged the memory of generations of prominent free blacks in New Jersey and Philadelphia. The student traced his family history through his mother’s ancestry to Cyrus Bustill and via marriage to fabled black Philadelphia families such as those of James Forten, Robert Purvis, the artist Sarah Mapps Douglass, and journalist Gertrude Bustill Mossell. Other young blacks got the message about Wilson’s racism. Future Harlem Renaissance literary giant Alain Locke chose Pennsylvania over New Jersey for his home state, despite his mother’s longterm residence, in the Rhodes Scholarship competition, knowing that Wilson would have a powerful say in the state’s nomination for the prize.

Reverend Robeson was also involved in a local protest over the national horror of lynching blacks. Robeson and his close friend, Abraham P. Denney, superintendent of the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, organized an antilynching meeting at the Witherspoon Church. The meeting created a resolution aimed at President William McKinley Jr. The resolution was peaceful and simply asked for laws to prevent the monstrous violence. For their efforts, Witherspoon and Denney soon lost their jobs. Using a pretext, the church fired Robeson although he tried for several years to gain reinstatement. More troubles loomed. His wife, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, died tragically in 1904, leaving the family motherless. Robeson Sr. strived to raise his family in a hostile world. Robeson moved the family to take a smaller parish at the AME Zion Church in Westfield. The minister literally built a church from the ground up. Paul helped his father lay bricks. The family lived in an attic over a grocery. Within a year, William Drew Robeson had achieved the near-miraculous construction of a new church. No doubt embittered by his Princeton experience, he advised the young Paul: “Climb up if you can . . . but always show that you are grateful . . . Above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you.” While that advice may have been practical in segregated New Jersey, Paul rejected it soundly as a famous adult.

During his childhood, Paul Robeson had to learn to ignore racist taunts and physical abuse in local schools. While he made many white friends, he experienced open racism in the school. The principal of the school was overtly hostile. The school’s singing instructor objected vehemently to Paul’s participation, even though his extraordinary talents were already obvious. William Drew Robeson emphasized education but Paul excelled in sports. Opponents piled on him in football games hoping to hurt him. Undeterred, Paul Robeson became the third black student to enroll at Rutgers College. The football team threatened to strike if a black player tried to integrate “their” team. Fortunately, the coach, Foster “Sandy” Sanford, recognized Paul’s potential and encouraged him. Sanford had to accept obstacles as other universities threatened to cancel games if Robeson played. Often the Rutgers administration acquiesced. Very gradually, Robeson won the respect of his teammates and, by his junior year, was recognized as an All-American ball player. His grades improved and Robeson was elected to the national Phi Beta Kappa honor society as a junior. Paul Robeson attended Rutgers during the World War I and learned to speak and act in patriotic ways. In private discussions however he defended the radical teachings of W.E.B. Du Bois against the conservative stances of Booker T. Washington, whose acceptance of separate but equal lives dominated white-black relations in this era.

Personal loss accompanied Paul Robeson’s achievements. His father died alone in May 1918. A month later Paul graduated as an acclaimed athlete with fourteen varsity letters. Winner of the Rutgers debating team’s prize for oratorical prose, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, he was selected as one of the four seniors who represented the ideals of Rutgers. His graduation speech, vetted by the school president, called for creation of a “national unity . . . to provide full opportunities for the development of everyone, both as a living person and as a member of a community upon which social responsibilities devolve.” He quoted Abraham Lincoln in a reference to the human sacrifices of the Civil War, at a moment when racial prejudice cast a negative perception of the accomplishments of the war, that its “dead must not have died in vain.” That speech, drawn from Robeson’s reading of the memory of the Civil War and the Jim Crow society that stymied his talents and ambitions, but using the unceasing support and power of the AME Zion Church, became Robeson’s valedictory from the Bustill family, from Rutgers, and New Jersey. He moved to New York City, entered Columbia Law School, and then found opportunity on the stage. Still, his formative years were spent in New Jersey and he remains, in the estimation of this writer, the most important person ever to emerge from the state.


As Atlantic City developed into a nationally known vacation and leisure destination in the early decades of the twentieth century, African Americans found themselves restricted to work pushing large rolling chairs along the famous Boardwalk. Although there was some leniency on the beaches before 1920 blacks were eventually barred from swimming with whites. Similar injunctions, always made to avoid alienating white customers, meant that theaters, amusement parks, restaurants, guesthouses, and hotels were all off-limits to blacks. Even as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performed at the Steel Pier, black residents were barred from attending. Atlantic City political and economic leaders strictly enforced dress codes for rolling car pushers on the Boardwalk. Atlantic City’s cabarets came under fierce criticism in 1923 after reports of white women dancing “a la Eve,” or naked, before mixed race audiences. Members of the local Civic Affairs Committee, a watchdog group, criticized police laxity over the dancers
and for allowing the city to become a “paradise for bootleggers, gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, panderers and confidence men.” A raid on a “black and tan,” or mixed race, nightclub in 1924 revealed illegal drinking and young black men “dressed up as women.” The police reported that black and tan taverns were doing a big business in the back parts of the city with entertainers doing “off-color stuff.” Policemen arrested a number of white women who attempted to enter black clubs. Making an example of one, the court sentenced her to a $200 fine or ninety days in jail. Seven more white girls were arrested on charges of being “disorderly persons,” a catchall term to punish ordinary human behavior.

State lawmakers seemed to equate mixed race love with illicit sex. Jersey officials busily poked into people’s private lives. An assemblyman from Monmouth County introduced a bill that would outlaw mixed race marriages. Fighting the odious proposal were Assemblymen J. Leroy Baxter, the sole black member of the assembly, attorney Isaac Nutter, and a delegation from the NAACP.

As Jim Crow segregation spread across New Jersey, blacks were increasingly
barred from public facilities. In Atlantic City and Camden, the YMCA and YWCA had separate branches for whites and blacks. The Boy and Girl Scouts, Salvation Army, and movie theaters became segregated. School segregation hardened into an unofficial but rigid policy. Towns took different approaches to creating service institutions, such as Englewood’s construction of a YMCA for blacks, which was developed using personal donations. Jersey City by contrast opened a regular branch of the YWCA for use by blacks and whites. Black Ys formed an association, which met quarterly at Princeton and Bordentown. The Princeton Y was a source of community pride among local blacks.

Elsewhere blacks were forced into second-class status. Trenton, the state capital, had a fairly small black community until mid-century. Before then, blacks could take any seat available on city buses, but they were not allowed to dine freely at the city’s restaurants or hotel
dining rooms. Black theatre-goers were restricted to the balcony. Hotel hiring became segregated. Trenton’s black waiters at the famed Stacy-Trent Hotel lost their jobs when, in 1924, the hotel’s management replaced all of them with young white women. Later, when guests complained of bad service by the inexperienced women, rumors abounded that the veteran black waiters would be recalled, but that never occurred. Downtown Trenton saw few black faces except behind brooms and dust mops.

More racial discrimination occurred at the Asbury Park Casino Arcade in 1934. Catherine Harris, wife of Lorenzo Harris, the sculptor and artist, took her daughter to the merry-go-round at the amusement park. After she placed her daughter on a wooden horse, the manager told her that blacks were not welcome and pulled the girl off the ride. Mrs. Harris then grabbed the manager by his tie and choked him. A passing police officer declined to press assault charges against the lady and ordered the manager to let the girl complete her ride. When Mrs. Harris sued the company, she was induced to drop her complaint after the ride operators published an apology
claiming that discrimination would not be tolerated. That apology did not work for long. By 1938, Asbury Park restaurants were accused of serving “negro dishes,” while theaters forced black patrons into a separate section. Blacks using Asbury Park beaches self-segregated to avoid problems with whites.

In an event that belied staunch, unyielding segregation, the Stacy-Trent Hotel, which had earlier fired its black employees, hosted a massive interracial meeting of churchwomen in 1929 with ancillary forums at the Bordentown School. Women from New York and New Jersey listened to lectures on “What It Means to Be a Negro in New Jersey” and “Negro Working Women in New Jersey.” Dr. George Haynes, a leading black intellectual and head of the Federal Council of Churches in New York, spoke at Bordentown. The following year the group met again, and Walter White, the acting secretary of the NAACP, was the prime speaker.

The pastor of Plainfield’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church achieved a singular honor in 1933. Reverend Edgerton E. Hall became the third person at Rutgers University to earn a PhD in education. He was the first black in the nation to receive such a doctorate. Reverend Hall was from the West Indies and had previously received an undergraduate degree from the University
of London, a theological bachelor’s degree from Payne Theological Seminary, and a master of arts degree from Rutgers.

Social behavior became increasingly segregated. Even visiting professionals suffered Jim Crow tactics, such as the Pittsburgh Courier’s theatrical correspondent who was refused service at the Long Branch boardwalk restaurant. At another restaurant he was handed a Negro menu with prices four times the cost for white customers. The NAACP went after theaters that discriminated. The Bayonne branch sued the newest and most modern cinema in the city for instituting a policy of sending blacks to balcony seats. Numerous respectable blacks were told that orchestra seats were already sold out, when they could see many unoccupied seats during the performance. The theater claimed that it had set a policy based upon proper attire and suggested that some of his employees had been too officious in their treatment of patrons. After the NAACP met with the manager, there was no further discrimination.

Clothing stores refused to let blacks try on garments before buying them. To store owners the idea that blacks could work at their stores was unthinkable. The Klan frowned upon interracial coalitions. In 1938, it plastered stickers on the cars of members of the Cosmopolitan Club, a mixed-race group, and burned a cross on the front lawn of the president of the organization.

Access to the state’s beaches was contentious. Long Branch attempted to segregate its beaches by requiring a three-dollar-a-day beach fee for nonresidents. They provided no facilities for changing clothes and outlawed walking on the boardwalk clad in just a swimsuit. The NAACP objected and convinced the Long Branch city council to build a bathhouse. They agreed, but charged an exorbitant fee for its use. Black residents also complained that no permits for the beach had been issued to people of their race. One enterprising woman found a way around the ban. Virginia Flowers, who could pass for white, purchased a long string of tickets and handed them out freely to would-be black beach patrons. Flowers became a star witness during the suit against the regulators. Her heroics earned her a flurry of marriage proposals, which she declined because, at only seventeen years old, she wanted to pursue her education while remaining “a shining light among the exclusive younger set” of blacks in New York and New Jersey.

Black Rebellion

On July 12, 1967, black Newark residents rebelled. There had been earlier warnings: In April 1966, arsonists in Newark destroyed ten buildings, killing four children and injuring fifteen other people, in one of a series of suspicious fires over the previous five months. Jersey City had experienced a wave of mini rebellions in early 1966, leading to the appointment of a black judge to serve in police courts. Angry protesters in Atlantic City exhibited rats in parades past the homes of slumlords. The NAACP helped file suits against rapacious landlords.

Lack of political power fed concerns about displacement. There was a controversial plan to uproot a Newark black community of 20,000 people to make room for a campus of the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry: part of a plan to build a postindustrial economy in Newark that would include few blacks. Newark’s industrial base had been declining for years, and, as Lizbeth Cohen and Kenneth Jackson have shown, sharp drops in individual and commercial property values were part of white flight to the suburbs. Unemployment among black men was widespread as were high rates of venereal disease, drug addiction, new cases of tuberculosis, and high infant mortality. Health problems present during the Depression were in fact worse because of widespread drug abuse and prostitution. Blacks who hoped to improve their lot through education were frustrated when Mayor Addonizio nominated James Callahan, a high school graduate, over Wilbur Parker, a respected black certified public accountant, to become Secretary to the Board of Education. Blacks already distrusted Addonizio, who the New Jersey Ku Klux Klan described as a dues-paying member. Radical black activists roused public unhappiness over the exclusion of African Americans from any positions of political power in a city that had the ninth highest concentration of black people in the nation.

The trigger was the police beating of John Smith, a black cabdriver, after he was stopped for a minor traffic violation. As the police clubbed Smith, his fellow cabbies radioed about the incident. Smith’s suffering was the last straw. CORE had called for investigations of police brutality for several years. Only 250 officers in the 1,400-member police force were black though African Americans made up almost 55 percent of the city’s overall population.

Soon a large crowd gathered around Newark’s Fourth Precinct police station where Smith was held, demanding information about Smith’s condition. The next day an angry crowd pummeled the precinct with bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. Armed riot police attempted to disperse the protesters, clubbing anyone with black skin. In response, blacks threw bricks and concrete blocks at the police before moving into downtown streets. The police arrested and beat poet and activist Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), then chained him to a wheelchair covered in blood at a hospital. Later Jones received a three-year prison term for rioting. He appealed the decision and it was reversed two years later.

In the next five days, twenty-four blacks and two whites died in law enforcement maneuvers, from stray bullets and car accidents. More than 1,100 people were injured, 1,400 were arrested, and millions of dollars of damage was sustained to private and public buildings. Police and National Guardsmen, of whom only a fraction were black, battled looters and arsonists throughout the black-dominated Central Ward. Tanks became commonplace sights on Newark streets. Jeeps covered with barbed wire served as checkpoints in the middle of streets. Most participants later recalled that the law enforcement officers were blatantly racist and excessively violent as they fired guns indiscriminately at innocent people and destroyed black-owned property. Indeed, most of the National Guardsmen were from segregated towns, had never been to Newark before, and were anxious about their safety. After the death of one policeman from reported sniper fire, the police forced evacuation of a building and then riddled it with bullets. Community activists and black leaders convinced Governor Richard Hughes that the National Guard was exacerbating the troubles. He pulled the guardsmen from Newark on Monday, July 17. As the guardsmen left, one apparently shot to death a twelve-year-old African American boy who was emptying a garbage pail in front of his home. As the Newark police often used their own guns and ammunition rather than department-issued weapons, their contribution to the gunfire is unknown, but the state police and guardsmen tracked every shot. The number of their rounds came to an astonishing 2,904 and 10,414 respectively. As Brad Tuttle has concluded, such shooting went beyond the mission of securing the peace. Esteemed black educator Kenneth Clark observed the riot-torn streets and compared them to a war zone.

Rebellions spilled into neighboring black communities, many of which suffered problems similar to those in Newark. Bad schools, collapsing urban infrastructure, and poorly designed housing projects with no recreational facilities indicated neglect and lack of funds. Unrest had already occurred in Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth in 1964 and 1965. Jersey City and Elizabeth blacks nearly rose up again in June 1967 until the city government saturated their neighborhoods with heavily armed policemen. A grand jury criticized the police in Paterson for using goon tactics to suppress the demonstrations.

Plainfield experienced the worst violence outside of Newark. The home to many commuters, it had few black residents before 1950, but over the next fifteen years, the city’s population of 45,000 was nearly one-third black. As with Englewood to the north, Plainfield’s black population divided into a middle class who lived in an East Side “golden ghetto,” and the unskilled, unemployed, and underemployed who lived on the West Side. Promises of a swimming pool for blacks in 1966 lapsed into a plan involving a half-hour bus ride with a twenty-five-cent fare and no lunches, both of which caused strains for poorer families. Worse, the bus operated only three days during the week and not on weekends. Larger problems included de facto segregation in the schools giving higher educational tracks to whites. Blacks had much higher dropout rates. The NAACP had intervened over issues of schooling, housing, and employment but with limited success. Blacks had little political power with only two members of the eleven-person city common council, both of whom represented the prosperous East Side. As with Newark, frustrations and inequalities caused poorer blacks to rise up, in looting stores, smashing cars, and engaging in arson for over a week, despite the presence of heavily armed state troopers and militia. The peak of conflict occurred on July 17 when a policeman was killed amid widespread looting. Numerous arrests were made as white officials attempted to mediate
the conflict. The state police searched homes of black residents without warrants, seeking stolen weapons. In 1967, eleven blacks were put on trial for rioting. In nearby New Brunswick, where no clearly defined ghetto existed, there were protests but little violence. Cranbury’s high schools experienced racial tensions.

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, three books encapsulated its events. Nathan Wright Jr., a minister and Black Power activist (albeit remaining a Republican), compiled important data on the causes of the riots. Wright and New Left activist Tom Hayden blamed the police and national guard for excessive violence. Ron Porambo, a veteran journalist, published a scorching first-person account. In his thoughtful, fully researched discussion of Newark’s ailments, published just after the urban rebellion, Wright identified key areas that sparked the uprising. He showed that in 1967 Newark had the highest crime rate, tuberculosis, syphilis, and gonorrhea, and highest maternal mortality levels in the nation. Worsening these problems were Newark’s highest national proportionate urban tax rate, highest population density, highest proportion of land set aside for urban renewal, and highest daytime population turnover. Carefully examining census data, long before any other scholar did so, Wright demonstrated white flight from key parts of Newark, showed the overwhelming concentration of blacks, many with little urban experience, in downtown wards, known as the “rotten casket.” Unlike earlier decades when men like George Cannon lived and worked in the city and helped build a vibrant black community, Wright found that African American leadership tended to move away from downtown Newark into somewhat integrated suburbs. Wright found downtown wards afflicted by despair with black and white poor locked in at the bottom and fighting each other in desperation.

This excerpt from Black New Jersey: 1664 to the Present Day is Copyright © 2019 by Graham Russell Gao Hodges and used with the generous permission of Rutgers University Press.

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