Unearthing African-American history in Central Jersey

Decades of research by Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills are stacked in a large pile that’s comprised of land deeds, church records and photos. It’s what helped them uncover missing historical records from New Jersey. Their 10-year journey is detailed in the book “If These Stones Could Talk” which celebrates the overlooked history of African-Americans in Central New Jersey.

“When you hear plantation you kind of harken up the image of southern cotton fields, but through all this labor that you would need New Jersey was a slave owning state. New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery in 1804,” said Mills.

Both Mills and Buck, lifelong residents of the predominantly white region, dedicated their lives to raising awareness about African-American history. The former board members of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association took NJTV News to Old School Baptist Church which was built by the Stout Family.

“Every time I enter into this church I think about my fourth great grandfather, Friday Truehart, who came to Hopewell as an enslaved individual by Oliver Hart who was a reverend,” Mills said. “So from the history of the Stout family that also kind of correlated with our African-American cemetery up the hill further, is that the Stout family and the Moore family were related and we received the land from the Moore family in order to have the Stoutsburg Cemetery.”

The cemetery is of one of three historic black cemeteries in Hopewell Valley. Buck and Mills say a call for help to preserve an unofficial African-American burial ground that was in danger of being bulldozed changed everything. They say they went in search of gravestone markers, but found more.

“Once we got done researching the area that’s in West Amwell, it was kind of hard to look up your relatives when they don’t have a last name. They were just listed as like, Dina, a colored woman. We have a memorial marker there for William Stives that crossed the Delaware with George Washington on Dec. 25,” Buck said.

“So from there we decided to dig into the life of William Stives and try to find out about his life. And it’s very difficult because there’s a lot of dead ends for African-Americans because our history was not kept,” Mills said.

Digging deeper led them to discover a larger population of black people, including Stives, who settled in the Sourlands. The area was popular mostly because the land was cheap and hadn’t been settled by white farmers.

The Mount Zion African-American Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed in 1850. The church played an important role for those who lived and worked in the mountains.

“The people that built the church still live in this region, not all of them but most of them. And we call them the founding African-American families of the Sourland Mountains and Hopewell Valley and surrounding areas,” Buck said.

The one-room church will become the new location of the first African-American museum in central New Jersey. Buck and Mills say they hope more people will come forward to donate items to the museum.