Expiating New Jersey’s Original Sin


This week Gov. Murphy checked the Juneteenth box, as did President Biden and Congress. The relatively obscure holiday marks the anniversary back in 1865 that Black slaves living in Texas learned from a Union Army general that weeks earlier, thanks to the Confederacy’s surrender, they had been emancipated.

“As we commemorate Juneteenth, we must commit to both remembering the past and continuing to take action to ensure communities of color, especially Black Americans, achieve the full equity they deserve,” said Governor Murphy, as he announced the formation of a panel to study the state’s “gaping racial wealth disparity.”

Murphy also signed the “Fair Chance in Housing Act” which prohibits “landlords from asking about criminal history on housing applications in most instances.” Such a remedy is essential in a state like New Jersey, where race based racial profiling and the so-called war on drugs continues to decimate communities of color, even as drug abuse in affluent white neighborhoods flies mostly under the radar.

Ironically, even as the news about emancipation finally got to Texas in 1865, New Jersey continued to refuse to ratify the 13th amendment, waiting another six months until after the war was over and President Lincoln had been assassinated.

According to University of Arkansas Professor James J. Gigatino II, even as the Civil War was being waged, New Jersey’s Democrats in the legislature “feared that immediate abolition would unleash a torrent of uneducated and uncontrolled former slaves who would wreak havoc on American society and ‘bring disaster to both races.’”

Gigatino cites the over-the-top racialized anxiety of James Goble, a Democratic state legislator who warned that if abolition were to come to pass, Blacks “soon will not only be equal but superior to the white race.” This was not out of the mainstream. Indeed, even as so many of our state’s residents fought and even died for the Union, Trenton was most concerned that no matter what the outcome of the war, southern slave owners be justly compensated for their property [slaves].

The reality is slavery was part of New Jersey’s DNA from its inception when it was defined as East and West Jersey.

According to the late Rutgers professor Dr. Clement Price, “support for the institution” of slavery “was stronger in New Jersey than in any other northern colony.” Back in 2008, on the occasion of the New Jersey State Legislature’s formal apology for slavery, Price told the public television program “Due Process” that “slavery was very important to New Jersey’s colonial economy.”

From its founding, when it was called the “New Netherlands,” as a Dutch colony in the early 1600s, and even after their English successors re-named it “New Jersey,” promoting slavery was hard-wired into the state’s political economy. According to the New Jersey State Library’s Unit on African American Slavery in the Colonial Era, the colony’s first constitution, the Concessions and Agreement of 1654/1665, actually “provided additional acreage” for each slave a prospective settler had.

By the end of the 17th century, Jersey-bound settlers were promised anywhere from between 60 to 75 acres for each slave they had on hand. Other documents indicate as much as a 150-acre incentive per slave.

In the early 1700s, the ongoing chronic shortage of manual and skilled labor for an expanding empire prompted Queen Anne to order that “a constant and sufficient supply of merchantable negroes” be available “at moderate rates” to New Jersey settlers. The crown also wanted to ensure that there were no “encroachments” on the slave-trading franchise enjoyed by Royal African Company by any enterprising locals.

The major slave port of entry for the slave traffic in New Jersey was through Perth Amboy. From 1737 up until 1800, the slave population went from just under 4,000 to well over 12,000. By far the highest concentration of slave labor was in Bergen County, where by 1800 there were close to 3,000 slaves, almost 20 percent of the population.

During the American Revolution, the Rev. Jacob Green, a Morris County preacher, used the tumult of the times as a powerful opportunity to call for abolition. Forget the Mason-Dixon line, America’s rhetorical fault line on slavery runs right through New Jersey.

From slavery’s inception in New Jersey, slaves were subject to a separate set of laws and courts that had the power to dispense brutal punishment for any infractions. “In contrast to New England’s liberal laws, the slave codes of New Jersey and other middle colonies resembled those of the South,” writes David Mitros, in his comprehensive “Slave Records of Morris County, NJ (1756-1841).

“Judged in separate courts with no access to trial by a jury, Blacks and American Indians accused of crimes in colonial New Jersey had little hope of receiving justice,” writes Mitros. “When a slave received the death sentence, the slave owner received monetary compensation from the state.”

In April 1712, two dozen armed African American slaves teamed up with Native Americans and set fire to a building in New York City and attempted to fight off the efforts to extinguish the fire. The slave rebellion was suppressed by the militia and 21 of the slaves were executed, some by being burned at the stake.

In reaction, both New York and New Jersey made their existing slave codes stricter. In 1735, a slave in Bergen County, who was alleged to have tried to set a house on fire, was also burned at the stake. In 1741, two slaves in Hackensack charged with a similar crime met the same fate.

During the American Revolution the British offered slaves their freedom in exchange for fighting for the crown and thousands of African Americans took them up on the offer. In New Jersey the state itself sold the slaves they confiscated from British loyalists aligned with the Crown while offering manumission to   limited number of slaves who opted to join the Revolution.

Incredibly, in 1776, due to the influence of Quaker egalitarianism, the state’s first constitution actually granted a near universal right to vote to “aliens, free African Americans (male and female), as well as white women,” according to Princeton University’s Princeton and Slavery Project.

But by 1807, universal suffrage was rolled back and restricted to only free while males with at least 50 pounds worth of property where it would remain only 1875.

In 1786, while the state banned the importation of slaves, it prohibited free black people from moving into the state. By 1824, the state legislators had passed a resolution supporting a campaign to send freed slaves back to a colony in Africa.

Decades after the Civil War, New Jersey’s unique tilt to the Confederacy’s white supremacy endured through the influential views of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, a college history professor, who briefly practiced law, he went from being Princeton University’s president to New Jersey’s Governor and then went on to be elected twice to the presidency.

Wilson, a native of Virginia, was the first president who was a son of the South since the Civil War. His father was a chaplain for the Confederate Army.   One of Wilson’s earliest acts as president was to sign off on racially segregating the federal civil service.

“By the end of 1913, Black employees in several federal departments had been relegated to separate or screened-off work areas and segregated lavatories and lunchrooms,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative. “In addition to physical separation from white workers, Black employees were appointed to menial positions or reassigned to divisions slated for elimination. The government also began requiring photographs on civil service applications, to better enable racial screening.”

That white supremacist regression gave a federal imprimatur for the Jim Crow regime of laws that already been in place for decades in the south.

More than a decade earlier, in an expansive historical essay for the Atlantic, entitled “The Reconstruction of the Southern States”, Wilson was advancing the grievances of a defeated South over Reconstruction into the 20th century.

“The first practical result of reconstruction under the acts of 1867 was the disfranchisement, for several weary years, of the better whites, and the consequent giving over of the southern governments into the hands of the negroes,” wrote Wilson. “And yet not into their hands, after all. They were but children still; and unscrupulous men, “carpetbaggers,” — men not come to be citizens, but come upon an expedition of profit, come to make the name of Republican forever hateful in the South, — came out of the North to use the negroes as tools for their own selfish ends; and succeeded, to the utmost fulfillment of their dreams.

Wilson continued. “Negro majorities for a little while filled the southern legislatures; but they won no power or profit for themselves, beyond a pittance here and there for a bribe. Their leaders, strangers and adventurers, got the lucrative offices, the handling of the state moneys raised by loan, and of the taxes spent no one knew how.”

The future president described the former slaves as “a vast laboring, landless, homeless class, once slaves, now free; unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control; never sobered by the discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence; excited by a freedom they did not understand, exalted by false hopes; bewildered and without leaders, and yet insolent and aggressive; sick of work, covetous of pleasure, — a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.”

Is it any wonder Wilson screened  D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” that cast the Ku Klux Klan as white knights defending white women from the  imagined predations of former slaves at the White House, a place that had been built by slaves?

Next: Courage in action: Remembering Atlantic City August 64’ when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party couldn’t get seated but stole the show.

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