Revisiting Camden’s dark past in the slave trade

His slaves slept in the attic of Pomona Hall, and in the 1700s worked the 400-acre fruit plantation for their master and owner, Marmaduke Cooper. For poet and historian Sandra Turner-Barnes, it’s a nightmare connection.

“Through the records at Pomona Hall at the historical society, I found out that the Coopers actually owned my ancestors,” she said.

Turner-Barnes spoke at the formal unveiling by the Camden County Historical Society, of an historical plaque marking Camden’s place in New Jersey’s slave trade.

The plaque explains how ships crammed with slaves from West Africa, sailed up the Delaware River, to dock at Federal Street and Cooper’s Ferry, where they were to be sold on the auction block. But it doesn’t convey the pain. Turner-Barnes does so in a fierce poem.

“Can’t you hear history screaming, ‘tick-tock, tick-tock?’ You see, no one’s been set free of Camden’s slave block. Blacks in America will forever carry slavery’s residue,” she recited.

That residue of slavery is seen today, argued keynote speaker Sen. Cory Booker, who noted New Jersey’s one of the nation’s most segregated states. He said truths like the slave trade in Camden must be told.

“When you tell the truth about hate and bigotry and violence and suppression and slavery, when you tell those truths you begin to see today with its greater glory,” said Booker.

Booker spoke of the deadly protest in Charlottesville. He’s sponsored a bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Hill.

“People are trying to bring about revisionist history. They’re trying to take treason and traitors and elevate them to high pedestals in our times and try to tell a different truth, which is a lie about our past! It is time for some truth telling in America,” continued Booker.

Ironically, the historical society now makes its headquarters at Pomona Hall. But it only officially recognized the part Marmaduke Cooper’s house played as a slave plantation and in the thriving slave trade, a little more than a decade ago. Three versions of the plaque will be placed near where the boats docked with their human cargo.

“There is documentation that slaves persons were sold at the three ferry boat landing sites: Coopers Point, Coopers Street and Federal Street,” said Derek Davis, a Camden County Historical Society board member.

As for Marmaduke Cooper, he was a Quaker. Most Quakers were abolitionists, but when they implored Marmaduke to emancipate his slaves, he refused, so records show they threw him out of the church according to records. Marmaduke kept his slaves until he died. Sometimes, even public shaming just isn’t enough. New Jersey’s last 16 slaves were not freed until the Emancipation Proclamation.

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