National Park Service adds site of Black church in Newark to Underground Railroad network

Published: Jun. 19, 2022

In the early 19th Century, some of Newark’s free Black residents worked as carriage drivers taking passengers to and from places like Philadelphia, Elizabeth and Jersey City, with its ferries to New York. They were precursors to the train conductors, bus drivers and commuter jet pilots that make Newark the transit hub it remains today.

Those carriage drivers were also among the city’s Black business people who bought the property necessary to vote and fund a local “station” of the Underground Railroad, the pre-Civil War escape route from enslavement to less hostile states and Canada, according to the New Jersey Historical Commission.

The Newark station was a home owned by a Black man named Jacob King. And next door was a small house of worship known, in the vernacular of the day, as the Presbyterian Plane Street Colored Church, built in 1836.

Noelle Lorraine Williams, who directs the African-American History Program of the New Jersey Historical Commission, applied to have the site included as a stop along the Underground Railroad and the National Park Service approved the application in April.

She and Rutgers University, which owns the site where the church stood, highlighted the inclusion as the nation prepares to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday this weekend.

“Even though New Jersey still enslaved Blacks even after Juneteenth, we all celebrate it in solidarity with the emancipation of Blacks everywhere in the United States,” said Williams, referring to 16 state residents freed after the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Juneteenth holiday recognizes June 19, 1865, the date Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaimed the end of slavery and the Civil War in Texas, the last Confederate holdout, after Lincoln signed the proclamation in 1863.

“Though small, the community on and near Plane Street Colored Church/Frederick Douglas Field would constitute the nucleus of Black antislavery and UGRR education work from Newark,” Williams wrote in the application to designate the church one of the Park Service’s 700 Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites.

The application was one of 16 the Park Service granted this year for UGRR sites in several states, including the Rensalier-Huntoon Underground Railroad Memorial in Paterson. The memorial marks the site of a UGRR station house owned and occupied by industrialist Josiah Huntoon and his assistant, William Van Renselier, which, thanks to a lighted cupola, was visible to freedom seekers traveling in darkness over Garret Mountain.

The Newark church sat on what is now a Rutgers University Newark soccer and softball complex named for abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who spoke at the church in 1849. The university plans to place a plaque on the site at University Avenue and Warren Street this fall commemorating the church and its official part in the UGRR Network.

King’s house was used to shelter freedom seekers, and he and other hosts were known as “stationmasters.” Williams’ application provided a detailed history of the Plane Street church and its leaders and placed them in the broader context of the UGRR network from Maryland to Maine.

Williams, 46, a resident of Newark’s Ironbound section, wrote in the application that much of New Jersey’s UGRR historical record focuses on the central and southern parts of the state, like the Harriett Tubman Museum in Cape May. But Williams, a Rutgers Newark alumna, says Newark played a critical role in the enslavement escape route. However, that has not been emphasized because its engineers sought to keep their activities secret from local white supremacists.

She cited local newspaper advertisements from around that time, one for a meeting held by white residents intended, “to prevent the unlawful residence in the Town of free Negroes or such as falsely declare themselves to be free,” and another seeking a runaway “who calls himself free.”

Williams noted that the Plane Street church was established by African Americans opposed to the segregated pews of the First Presbyterian Church on Broad Street. Its leaders included nationally known figures Samuel Cornish, a Presbyterian minister and editor of America’s first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, and a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, led by fellow Americans of mixed race.

The congregation eventually moved and became known as the 13th Avenue Presbyterian Church, housed in a historic Romanesque structure demolished in the 1970s to make way for housing.

Before the creation of the Juneteenth holiday — before the Emancipation Proclamation, for that matter — Williams Great Britain’s abolition of slavery inspired leaders of Plane Street church, and they regularly celebrated the First of August holiday marking its 1834 effective date.

“In Newark, for example, people like Samuel Cornish...were organizing lunches and celebrations, and they were called First of August Celebrations,” Williams said “And using the West Indies as an example, they were, like, ‘Look, this was an example of a quote-unquote, peaceful emancipation process. This can also happen in the United States.’ ”

British emancipation was an attractive model for abolitionists in the United States because it hadn’t come with a bloody civil war. In any case, Williams said the grassroots opposition to slavery centered around the church, in addition to its part in the Underground Railroad contributed to Park Service officials’ appreciation of its historical significance.

“That was very much a part of the discussions that they were having,” Williams said. “And that’s actually one component of the National Park Service application, that I was able to show that they were having these anti-slavery meetings at the church.”

Williams, also a visual artist, is coordinating a Juneteenth event on June 25, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at a 17th Century house in Middletown, “Beneath the Floorboards: Whispers of the Enslaved at Marlpit Hall.” Register at

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-20 02:27:14 -0700