Thirty Days that Woke America: Can N.J. Finally Own its Own Slavery History?

Pitney Farm

Morris County’s Pitney Farm, site of slavery, destroyed by arson in 2016. 

 

It has not yet been 30 days since a Minneapolis police officer chocked the life out of George Floyd  in broad daylight.

In the weeks since our nation has been convulsed with massive peaceful protest and civil unrest amidst a once in a century pandemic that’s likely to take the lives of close to 200,000 of our fellow Americans by the end of the summer.

A disproportionate number of these COVID-19 victims will be people of color because death finds us the way we live and in America race has long been the single most powerful predictor of your circumstance and your fate.

For the entirety of my life this country has been in denial about this in the same way that Donald Trump has been in denial about the help provided him by Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence services in 2016.

Letting such an upending insight get traction in your soul can undermine the foundational presumptions upon which our very identity and sense of moral legitimacy is built.

PEOPLE AS PROPERTY

It’s hard to process the thought that so much of the wealth and privilege that defines our current society can be traced back to America’s original an unexpiated sin that was slavery. It even extends back a few centuries earlier when through the Doctrine of Christian Discovery the Catholic Church granted European monarchs the right to claim as their property the people and lands they were conquering.

In the generations since, thanks to our winner take all system, we’ve managed to find a myriad of ways to insidiously carry forward the same power dynamic that we can shorthand as ‘white skin privilege.’

It is manifest in the over policing in communities of color and in the massive racial wealth and income disparities we have reinforced with suppressing wages generation after generation. From the minimum wage to tax policy, our economy is rigged to reward great wealth with more wealth as we squeeze the humanity at the bottom of the Great American Wealth Pyramid.

TAKING A KNEE, MAYBE TWO

Today, June 19, 2020 the nation is pausing like it never has to reflect on Juneteenth 1865, when Union Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Texas to issue General Order Number 3 that announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order declared. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

That’s usually where the citation ends.

But it continued.

“The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

And that ‘work it out amongst yourselves’ guidance was issued by the slaves’ liberator.

In the 155 years since Gen. Granger broke the news to the state of Texas about the end of slavery New Jersey’s done a pretty good job rubbing off its fingerprints off the institution and planting it on the south.

HIDING THE BODIES

As a kid growing up here, I was taught in school that slavery was a Southern moral defect. Imagine my surprise when at almost 60 I learned that my own state, New Jersey, was once an enthusiastic booster of slavery.

My path to enlightenment started while I was helping my daughter at her stand at a local farmers’ market in the summer of 2014. The Mendham Farmers Market was located that one summer on the Pitney Farm, which up until our town bought it a few years back, had been in the same family since the 1740s — 11 generations dating back to when New Jersey was a colony.

As I stuffed kale into bags, I spotted a black lawn jockey, which stood in front of the Pitney’s manor house, the architectural focal point of a farmstead with barns and additional cottages. And I wondered: Was it possible that slaves worked this land?

So, I decided to use the Pitney Farm as a prism of place through which I could glean the reality of slavery in my own community.

There was no mention of such history in any of the local literature, nor in the municipal documents that were part of the town’s due diligence when it purchased the homestead. Out back, the paint has faded on the Bicentennial Farm sign affixed to one of the red barns, vestiges of what was once a working farmstead. There’s no marking to note that slaves were part of the life of this place — although I would come to learn that they were, throughout all of Morris County and across the entire state of New Jersey, from its earliest white settlement, up until the end of the Civil War.

PAYING TO DISAPPEAR HISTORY

Back in 2008, before it moved to buy the property, Mendham Township received a report from the Cultural Resource Consulting Group, which cataloged what is known about the historical significance of the site. The seven-page report highlighted the accomplishments of the Pitney family, which can trace its roots back to the 1720s in the area.

Mahlon Pitney, one of the family’s patriarchs, fought alongside George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Another Mahlon Pitney served two terms in Congress and was nominated by President Howard Taft to serve on the United States Supreme Court. From the CRCG report, we know the farm grew to encompass more than 700 acres and included a dairy operation. But the slaves were invisible in this analysis.

The Pitney Farm was the center of a hub of productive activity that included an iron forge and distillery. Pitney peaches and apple brandy were famous in their day. The place was prominent enough that it was a stop on the Rockaway Valley Railroad line that ran from Whitehouse Station in Hunterdon County to Morristown back in the late 19th century.

The CRCG analysis concludes that the Pitney site has a multilayered historical significance because the 12-acre farmstead “demonstrates the evolution of the multi-generational homestead of an important and influential family that traces its roots to the Revolution” and “distinguished themselves in the area of local, state and Federal law.” But as for the day-to-day life on the colonial farm that laid the foundation for the family’s commercial and civic achievements, not much is known.

“Little information was uncovered concerning the family’s farming activities during the mid to early 18th century,” according to the CRCG report prepared by Gregory Dietrich, senior architectural historian.

The document made no reference to the well-documented role of slavery at the Pitney Farms.

There were, however, multiple extant historical records available online and in the county library that offered a fuller image of just how much Mendham, and indeed our entire state, was reliant on, and enmeshed in, the day-to-day brutality of slavery.

My first break came while looking in a Rutgers index for old court records online. I found that, in May of 1793, in the case “of Negro James, a Boy about Thirteen Years of age, claiming his freedom,” New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered that James Pitney, listed as the defendant, “discharge” the black teen from “illegal detention.”

According to the history of the case, as recounted in the court order, three years earlier Pitney bought the African American boy from relatives of Jasper Smith, of Hunterdon County. Smith died in 1769, but in his will called for the freeing of “all my negroes,” including “Negro Juddy,” the mother of the boy now in Pitney’s possession. (Evidently Smith’s heirs had other ideas.)

The order continues: “The Court having taken due consideration, are unanimously of Opinion, that the said Negro Juddy” was “a free woman by the Will of the said Jasper Smith,” which in turn meant that Juddy’s son James was, as the state’s highest court saw it, “entitled to his freedom.”

Just four years later that same Supreme Court, in a very similar habeas corpus petition, brought this time on behalf of a Native American known to the court only as “Rose,” had a very different ruling that would keep her in slavery.

“They [the Native Americans] have been so long recognized as slaves in our law,” the Court wrote, “that it would be as great a violation of the rights of property to establish a contrary doctrine at the present day, as it would be in the case of Africans; and as useless to investigate the manner in which they originally lost their freedom.”

In that ruling the state’s high court had internalized the Doctrine of Christian Discovery promulgated by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that gave Europe’s monarchs the franchise to conquer and subjugate the non-Christians inhabiting the planet, so as to add to the dominion of the church.

In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M’Intosh that this grim franchise granted European sovereigns had been transferred to the United States: “The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.”

UNION STATE THAT LIKED SLAVERY

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.

“The earliest known record of slaves in New Jersey dates to 1680, when Colonel Lewis Morris of Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, is identified as owning approximately sixty to seventy slaves,” according to the New Jersey State Library.

THE KILLER FRANCHISE

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.

Yet, even as commercial interests embraced slavery, there was a countervailing movement for abolition in New Jersey. In 1693, Quakers out of Philadelphia, whose influence extended through southern and central Jersey, issued the first anti-slavery pamphlet in North America. For the entirety of the time that slavery was countenanced by law, a vigorous debate raged in New Jersey that divided religious congregations throughout the state.

During the American Revolution, the Rev. Jacob Green, a Morris County preacher, used the tumult of the times as a powerful rhetorical opportunity to call for abolition. Thus, it was that the fault line of this great national debate ran right through the heart of New Jersey.

According to David Mitros, historian and author, the Rev. Green, who established the First Presbyterian Church of Hanover, was also the first New Jersey man to go on the public record calling for the separation from Great Britain. In his book, “Jacob Green, and the Slavery Debate in Revolutionary Morris Count,” Mitros writes that Green, in the darkest days of the Revolution, warned from the pulpit that the nascent nation risked appearing a great hypocrite if it maintained slavery at its inception.

RECLAIMING LOST PROPHECY

“What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain’s attempts to oppress and enslave us,” Green said, “are at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery… [even as we declare] that we esteem liberty the greatest earthly blessing.” This sermon was published in 1779 as a pamphlet by the New Jersey Journal, and helped frame the debate around the apparent contradiction of maintaining slavery while proclaiming national liberty.

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 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 them accepted the offer. In New Jersey, the state itself profited from the institution when it sold at auction slaves they had confiscated from Crown loyalists.

WORKING THE ANGLES

In 1786, while the state banned the importation of slaves, it prohibited free black people from moving into the state.

As brutal as the slave codes were, there was some effort in New Jersey to regulate potential abuses by the slave masters. In December of 1808, Mahlon Pitney, James’ son, was the foreman on a Morris County jury of 12 men that convicted Abraham Cooper of Chester for using a hot iron to brand the forehead of his slave Cato.

The jury ruled Cato was “there by grievously wounded and hurt” and was put “to great pain, torture and other wrong” and fined Cooper $40, recounts David Mitros, in his “Slave Records of Morris County, NJ (1756-1841).”

Four years after that, Mahlon Pitney registered with Morris County the birth of a female slave child named Peg born on Sept. 20, 1810, in Mendham to “my negro slave named Rachel” to comply with New Jersey’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1804.

SLOW WALKING FREEDOM

That act mandated that children born to slaves born after July 4, 1804, would eventually be granted their freedom — for boys only after they served for 25 years as slaves to their mother’s master; for females the age was set at 21.

Of course, the structure of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 required that thousands of African American women would give birth to children that would start their lives as slaves. It also had a provision for slave owners to “abandon” these children a year after their birth to the “county poorhouse,” where they would be declared a pauper and “bound out” as indentured servants to the highest bidder by the overseers of the poor “in the same manner as other poor children.”

“Some slave owners took full advantage of the law,” writes Mitros. “They abandoned the slave children, then bid them back to receive the state subsidy” for maintaining these “paupers,” which got them $3 a month for their maintenance from the state treasury. Eventually this self-serving practice was ended in 1811, because it was consuming too much of the state’s revenue.

HAVING IT BOTH WAYS

New Jersey fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War but, according to Jim Gigantino, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic Northern state when it came to holding on to it years after other Northern states had ended it.

Gigantino, author of book “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey 1775-1865,” says that after the Civil War, New Jersey obscured its well-established support of slavery by choosing to “memorialize things about the end of slavery.”

“So, when we talk about slavery in modern times we talk about emancipation or abolition of slavery,” Gigantino says. “This is a purposeful reinvention of New Jersey as part of the free North narrative of participation in the underground railroad, participating in this freedom process.”

Professor Gigantino says his research indicates that as many as 400 African Americans remained in some form of slavery at the end of the Civil War, not the reported 18 long accepted in the historical record.

Just before the end of the Civil War, New Jersey even voted down the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, only voting to ratify it in 1866, after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination months earlier.

That would be the year after Union Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3 in Texas.

Sometimes, when property and wealth are at stake good news doesn’t travel so fast.

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