WESTFIELD — The history of the Black community in Westfield is a complicated one, rife with struggles and triumphs about which modern-day residents may know very little. On Saturday, June 18, in an effort to shed some light on an integral but often overlooked piece of the town’s collective past, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Westfield will host an African- American History Tour as part of this year’s Juneteenth celebrations.
The idea for the tour, now in its second year, came about during preparations for the town’s 300th anniversary in 2020.
According to information provided by the MLK Association, the town presented a grand, all-day pageant in Mindowaskin Park highlighting the historical milestones of the town from 1720 to 1920 as part of its bicentennial celebrations.
“The history of the Lenape was represented in one of the parades, but the word ‘slavery’ or any mention of African-American history was noticeably omitted,” said MLK Association President Liz Wolf. “We realized in planning for the 300th anniversary that we couldn’t allow that to happen again.”
One of the first, if not the most controversial, landmarks along the tour is a quiet, pedestrian thoroughfare located at the intersection of North Avenue West and East Broad Street.
Though local records are a bit unclear, Ms. Wolf said that the busy downtown area, now known as Lincoln Plaza, likely served as the site of a slave auction from the mid 1750s to some point in the 19th century.
“People have this idea that slavery was something that only happened in the deep south, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Ms. Wolf said. “It was actually very prominent here in the northeast, and Westfield was no exception.”
Census reports from the late 18th century indicate that were 25 enslaved people living in Westfield in 1780. The practice continued through several generations until, by 1830, some of Westfield’s wealthiest families, including the Cory, Elmer and Ross families, all owned (and occasionally sold) slaves.
“Laws in place at the time broke up families and prohibited enslaved people from visiting family in other states,” Ms. Wolf said, reading from the tour guide manuscript. “The laws enacted separate regulations with more severe punishments for African-Americans and prevented African-Americans from meeting and holding property.”
New Jersey, the last of the northern states to do so, passed a law on February 15, 1804, providing for the “gradual emancipation of slaves.” As the census reports indicate, however, the practice lingered on for several more decades, as White slave owners continued to push back against the new law. Even after the slaves were freed, the law included provisions for indentured servitude that, for some, lasted well into the 1850s.
One particularly noteworthy stop on the tour gives participants the opportunity to pay their respects to two women, one named Mary Randolph and the other known simply as Jude, both indentured servants who were laid to rest in Fairview Cemetery beside the Westfield family that they served.
According to MLK Westfield, “though New Jersey was the last state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, Fairview Cemetery’s Civil War section reflects Westfield’s evolving attitude. The graves of African-American Civil War soldiers are buried in Ward G with full honor in a majestic spot along with their white peers. This may be, in part, due to the advocacy of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal veterans organization formed in 1866 that was among the first organized advocacy groups supporting voting rights for Black veterans. Mindful of the demonstrated loyalty and sacrifices of the African-American soldiers in the Civil War, the Grand Army pushed for honorable burials.”
“It’s a hard thing to think about things like slavery and indentured servitude in a town like this now, obviously, but pretending that it didn’t happen doesn’t mean that it didn’t,” Ms. Wolf said.
The African-American History Tour is not all about struggle, however. It also takes visitors past houses where Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston once stayed while working together on the script for a Broadway play. The two Harlem Renaissance icons stayed in Westfield for a time around 1930 at the request of a benefactor who thought some time away from the noise and distraction of the city would be good for the writers. Though the pair had a falling out shortly after arriving in town (both of them ultimately left Westfield in 1931), their innumerable cultural and social contributions are still highly respected both in the local area and beyond.
The tour also includes a detailed summation of the Black professional district (a quiet neighborhood which included sections of West Broad Street, Trinity Place, Palsted Avenue and Downer Street where Black doctors, lawyers and medical professionals lived and worked from 1940 to 1970) and other notable landmarks including the Centennial Elks Lodge, the Martin Luther King monument, the Westfield Community Center and St. Luke’s AME Zion Church.
“This is an incredible program and I think every single person in Westfield should take advantage of it,” said Brad Chananie, co-chair of Lifelong Westfield, a local seniors group that got to take a sneak peak of the African American History Tour late last week. “I am really overwhelmed. I learned so much from this experience. I can’t recommend it highly enough.”