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The last Northern state to completely abolish slavery is honoring the Black trailblazers who contributed to its growth. Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed bill A2677 into law in September, giving the state’s Historical Commission $1 million to develop the Black Heritage Trail.
The path highlights Black historical markers and sites throughout the state and comes as other states and cities embark on similar initiatives, including ones in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.
The goal is to “discover the remarkable achievements and legacies of New Jersey’s African American scholars, famous figures and everyday citizens who shaped the State’s history for nearly four centuries,” according to a statement from Gov. Murphy.
New Jersey was late to the freedom party
Though seen as a liberal enclave today, New Jersey was actually the last Northern state to abolish chattel slavery, and signs of the Underground Railroad remain scattered throughout the state.
Despite technically abolishing the evil practice in 1804, like New York, New Jersey passed a gradual abolishment that didn’t see the last enslaved African freed until January 23, 1866, months after the last enslaved persons were freed in Texas.
According to the New Jersey state government website: the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Law “delayed the end of slavery in the state for decades. It allowed for the children of enslaved Blacks born after July 4, 1804 to be free, only after they attained the age of 21 years for women and 25 for men. Their family and everyone else near and dear to them, however, remained enslaved until they died or attained freedom by running away or waiting to be freed.”
When it comes to Black history and discussions surrounding Black liberation, New Jersey rarely enters the chat. Yet with the creation of the Black Heritage Trail, people from across the nation are able to travel between various historical sites that were influential to the freedom of Black people in New Jersey.
Black Heritage Trail
Using a downloadable itinerary and maps that pinpoint Black heritage sites, museums and modern-day attractions, tourists can visit everything from historic restaurants to hidden burial grounds.
An article from the thrillist gives a breakdown of popular sites to visit.
The Underground Railroad spanned across the state as enslaved Africans desperately sought refuge in New York and Canada. In Northern New Jersey, the Hilton-Holden House still stands. The historic site was a safe house, providing shelter for weary travelers.
In Central New Jersey, Shady Rest Country Club became the first Black-owned golf club in the U.S. in 1921, the same year a White mob destroyed the wealthy Historic Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, home to the original Black Wall Street.
Bringing Black history to the forefront
Receiving visits from influential Black people like Louis Armstrong, W.E.B DuBois, Althea Gibson and others, Shady Rest was included in the Green Book as a safe spot for Black people to take refuge amidst the deadliest years of Jim Crow.
Famously, in Southern New Jersey, Cape May represented a place that Harriet Tubman lived and worked in the 1850s to gain funding for her Underground Railroad travels, according to the Harriet Tubman Museum of New Jersey. It houses three major abolitionist sites, including Banneker House, one of the few summer resorts for Black people in the 1840s.
New Jersey Historical Commission Executive Director Sara Cureton told NBC News last fall that the history of Black Americans in New Jersey has been long neglected and supressed.
“The establishment of the New Jersey Black Heritage Trail is one powerful way to elevate the stories of Black New Jerseyans so that we all can learn from them,” she said.