N.J. to create statewide Black history trail under new law

Published: Sep. 07, 2022

There’s Cape May, where Harriet Tubman lived and worked in the 1850s to help fund her mission rescuing slaves via the Underground Railroad.

There’s Perth Amboy, where Thomas Mundy Peterson became the first free Black man to vote after the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870.

There’s Paterson, where Hinchliffe Stadium hosted Negro League baseball games during the first half of the 1900s.

Those are some of the people and places that could be included as New Jersey will create a trail commemorating Black history and culture across the state under a bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law Wednesday.

The bipartisan law (A2677) requires the New Jersey Historical Commission to establish a Black Heritage Trail, linking together landmarks, heritage sites, museums, and attractions highlighting moments of political, military, artistic, cultural, and social importance in the state’s Black history.

The state launched a virtual Black heritage trail in 2021, but this measure appropriates $1 million in taxpayer money to place markers at sites along a physical trail. Visitors will also be able to download itineraries and maps for a possible three-day trip to take it all in.

”In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,’“ state Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, a main sponsor of the measure and chairwoman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, said before Murphy signed the law during a ceremony at Newark Public Library.

“It is our job to carry forth the torch that has been placed on our shoulder,” Sumter added. “It is our job to ensure we keep history alive.”

Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, R-Cape May, another main sponsor, said the trail will be an opportunity for New Jersey — one of the nation’s most diverse states — to celebrate its Black culture while also bringing more tourism here.

“It’s an opportunity to learn about our history, not just on Martin Luther King Day, not just in February for Black History Month, and not just in June for Juneteenth,” McLellan said.

The measure passed both houses of the state Legislature without a dissenting vote in June — 38-0 in the Senate and 78-0 in the Assembly.

State officials are still working to establish an exact list of which locations will get markers on the trail. Officials named these possible sites during Wednesday’s event:

  • The Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, which opened in 2021, honoring both the Civil Rights icon and the area’s role in the Underground Railroad, helping bring slaves to freedom.
  • Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, which is currently being renovated. It’s one of the last surviving Negro League venues and where baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby, a city native, spent his formative years, leading to a groundbreaking career in which he became the first Black player in the American League in 1947.
  • Lawnside in Camden County, the first first incorporated and self-governed Black municipality north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
  • Princeton, where famed actor and football player Paul Robeson was born.
  • Red Bank, where legendary musician Count Basie was raised and learned to play piano.

“New Jersey’s Black history must be told,” Murphy said. “It must be celebrated, not just here in Newark but all across our state. The Black experience in New Jersey reaches far and wide.”

The Democratic governor, who is white, said while New Jersey wears its diversity now as a “badge of honor,” the state has “not always been welcoming or supportive of our Black residents.” Murphy noted it was the last northern state in which enslaved Black people lived and that state lawmakers opposed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and gave Black men the right to vote.

“The Black History Trail will ensure all of our history lives, whether they are celebrations or commemorations,” Murphy said.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka also noted that Newark included Underground Railroad stops and that the city — New Jersey’s largest — is currently renaming the park outside the library as Harriet Tubman Square.

“A monument is just on it’s face something we can look at and say this remind us of history,” Baraka said. “But it’s really an anchor — a cultural and educational anchor — that helps us understand the travels of people in this community, the relatedness we have with one another, the history of this state. It allows us to identify where we were, where we are, and where we need to be.”

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way said the heritage trail will present “a full account of our state’s Black history.”

“This historic legislation will indeed make it possible for all of us to travel the trails and witness the markers in hopes of creating that more perfect union,” Way said.


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published this page in News and Politics 2022-09-08 03:04:34 -0700