Jersey City was the last "station" on the Underground Railroad route through New Jersey. Tens of thousands of fugitive slaves arrived here from several states, such as Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. From these states, they traveled to the Delaware River where they crossed over to New Jersey to continue on to Jersey City. The crossing of the slaves was in the same area of Jersey City as the Dutch settlement of New Netherlands at Harsimus, where slavery was introduced in the 1640s.
Slave traders brought Africans here to work on their farms as either slaves or indentured servants and some eventually became free. Settlers with familiar local street names like Brinkerhoff, Garrabrant, Newkirk, Prior, Tuers, Van Horn, Van Reypen, Van Vorst, Van Winkle, and Vreeland, among others, purchased slaves to work at their estates and farms. One of the first-known slaveholders was Jacob Stoffelsen (1601-1677), the husband of Vrouwtje Ides Van Vorst who was the second wife of Cornelius Van Vorst. Before moving to Harsimus, he worked for the Dutch West India Company as the "Commissary of Stores" and as an overseer of slaves in New Amsterdam.
Stoffelsen was given a slave by Captain Guert Tysen, a privateer, in exchange for the hospitality shown him at the Van Vorst estate, which Stoffelsen had inherited through marriage. Tysen had anchored his ship at Harsimus (near Henderson Street and present-day Newport Mall). The Holland Society of New York reports that a dispute over the ownership of the slave resulted in a lawsuit heard before the City Court of New Amsterdam in 1654. Stoffelsen's stepson, Ide Van Vorst, claimed he owned one-half of the slave because he had provided, from his father's estate, one of two sheep prepared at the meal served to Tysen. The court upheld Stoffelsen's possession of the slave.
In the Township of Bergen, Joachem Anthony, a free Dutch-speaking black from New Amsterdam, joined the congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1679. The church's "Register of Communicants Being Persons of Color" reveals the membership of other blacks in the church. The Reverend John Cornelison (1793-1828) of the Dutch Reformed Church (now Old Bergen Church) conducted a ministry for black slaves in the township. He also had slaves in his home at the present-day corner of Bergen and Sip Avenues. There he provided the slaves with religious services and reading instructions. Many blacks joined white congregations prior to the founding of African American churches in Jersey City in the 1850s.
Slave trade continued in Bergen County (present-day Bergen and Hudson Counties) throughout the eighteenth century. Captain Thomas Brown operated a lucrative slave business from his home, known as Retirement Hall (New York Bay Coast at Linden Avenue), where he kept slaves in the basement until they were sold. In 1790, Bergen County had a population of 12,601 with 2300 slaves and 192 "other free" persons, the highest percentage of slaves in New Jersey at 19.8 percent. An 1841 map identifies an early "African burying ground" on the estate of slave owner Cornelius Garrabrants.
Funerals for slaves were held at his Communipaw area stone house, which stood at Phillip Street. The slaves were buried behind the homestead at the intersection of Johnston Avenue and Pine Street, near the northern entrance to the Liberty State Park Station of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail System. In Jersey City and Its Historic Sites, Harriet P. Eaton writes: "Many of the [Jersey City] slaves ran away to New York and Connecticut. Those who went to New York lived in cellars or wherever they could find shelter. When any of them died their friends always brought them back to Communipaw to bury them and their funerals were held at the old Garrabrant stone house, which used to stand in what is now Phillip Street . . . They were buried on the Garrabrant farm in what is now Lafayette, and also on the Van Reypen place" (74).
In 1804, New Jersey passed a gradual abolition plan, which did not prohibit slavery, but freed the children born to slaves after July 4th of that year. Forty years later the state constitution limited the right to vote to white males only; the provision was based on an 1807 statute that had withdrawn the right to vote to formerly qualified women and freed slaves under the state constitution of 1776. A statute for the elimination of slavery was not passed until 1846. The impact of these provisions was the reduction of New Jersey's slave population to 236 in 1850. The 1860 US Census recorded 18 slaves, referred to as "apprentices," in New Jersey and 648 "colored" [sic] persons in Hudson County with a total population of 62,717.
During the antebellum era, between fifty thousand to seventy thousand fugitive slaves came through to Jersey City. They traveled from the southern states crossing the Delaware River from Pennsylvania. There were twelve escape lines on the route; the four major lines that started from Camden, Salem, Greenwich and Trenton all converged at "stations" such as Bordentown or Burlington and headed for Jersey City. Once the fugitive slaves reached Jersey City, many would take leave for Canada or New York.
Some escaped slaves traveled to Newark and used the Belleville Turnpike to get to Jersey City. From Five Corners (Newark and Summit Avenues), they were driven, hidden in wagons, to the Jersey City waterfront. There, and at the Morris Canal basin, abolitionists hired ferry boats and coal boats to take the fleeing slaves across the Hudson River, called the "River Jordan," to go to Canada, New England, or New York City. The latter had a sizable number of free blacks offering some anonymity. They also exited from Harsimus Cove near the foot of Washington Street or at the foot of Montgomery Street (today Exchange Place). Local historians claim the fleeing slaves may have exchanged services to unload cargo from the New York City vessels for their transportation across the river. The ferryboats arrived at the Hudson River Passenger Station at the corner of Church and Chambers Streets in New York City.
New Jersey's enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott Decision made neither New Jersey nor Jersey City the destination of most fugitive slaves. It became increasingly profitable to kidnap fugitive slaves as well as dangerous for those assisting fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.
In Jersey City, residents were generally antagonistic to the abolitionist movement. Jersey City's first and three-time mayor Dudley S. Gregory was a member of the American Colonization Society in the tradition of the Whig Party. Colonization was viewed as an alternative to abolition and might even benefit the welfare of the slaves by removing themselves outside the United States. Certain congregations in Jersey City, like the First Baptist Church on Clinton Avenue, banned abolitionist speeches indicating sympathy for the South.
Such feelings split congregations and led abolitionists in 1858 to found the Congregational Tabernacle Church. Referred to as "the first successful congregational church in Jersey City," Tabernacle Church was also called the "People's Palace" for its work among the city's poor. It was located at the southeast corner of York and Henderson Streets, today in the vicinity of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parochial School. The Reverend John Milton Holmes hid fugitive slaves in the church and during the Civil War encouraged Jersey City residents to support the Union.
The abolitionist movement did find courageous activists in the city. Perhaps Jersey City's best-known abolitionist was David L. Holden. His home at 79 Clifton Place, the only house on the block during the 1850s, was known as a "safe house." It was used to hide the fugitive slaves in the basement, which had a fireplace for the temporary occupants. As an amateur astronomer, Holden had an observatory on the roof of the house from which he received signals for the movement of the slaves he sequestered in his home. According to Glenn Cunningham, Mayor of Jersey City and author and narrator of the TV documentary Hidden Footprints, the Holden House is the only site in Jersey City that remains from Underground Railroad. He further notes that the property behind the Medical Center, near Cornelison Avenue, was a pine and cedar forest that offered protection to the slaves although well known to bounty hunters (Cunningham, VHS copy of Jersey City Cable TV Documentary, 1991).
Other local abolitionists include Dr. Henry D. Holt, a physician and a former clerk of the Common Council of Jersey City. His home at 134 Washington Street on the Morris Canal Basin on the Hudson River was a "depot" on the Underground Railroad. As editor of the Jersey City Advertiser and Bergen Republican (1838), Holt wrote articles and editorials decrying the inhumanity of slavery. Holt later became an editor for the Jersey City Courier and Advertiser. The home of John Everett, also on Washington Street, was a warehouse for goods contributed to help fugitive slaves; he was called "a conductor" as he gave guidance for escape routes out of Jersey City.
Thomas Vreeland Jackson and John Vreeland Jackson, born in 1800 and 1803 respectively, were slaves on the estate of the Vreeland family in Greenville. They were freed between 1828 and 1830 and became oystermen on the Hudson River. In 1831, they bought land in the Greenville area on Newark Bay from widow Elizabeth Gautier for $240 to pursue their occupation. That same year the Morris Canal Company purchased a portion of their land for $125 to construct the canal. From their home that served as a "station" on the Underground Railroad in the Greenville section of Jersey City, they helped numerous slaves escape.
According to a plaque at the Martin Luther King Station on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, "Legal records show that today Winfield Avenue, originally named Jackson Lane, was opened in 1857 by Thomas Jackson and heirs of John Jackson as a path between their homes." Jackson Lane was renamed Runyon Avenue in 1883, and in 1900 renamed Winfield Avenue.
One of the local newspapers, The American Standard (1859-1875), published by John H. Lyons, reflected the views of the "Copperhead" faction of the Democratic Party. It faulted the abolitionist movement for the Civil War and opposed the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln's opponents supported the Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas who carried New Jersey in the presidential election. Hudson County was dominated by the Democrats and the newspaper was regarded as "Democratic." During the war, the Copperhead dissenters also opposed the draft and sought immediate termination of the war. However, on February 21,1861, when Lincoln traveled from New York by ferry to Jersey City on the way to his inauguration , he was greeted at Exchange Place by a reported 25,000 people and received congenial reviews by the same newspaper.
Twenty-first Century Commemoration
In 2002, from September 29 to October 13, there was a reenactment of the Underground Railroad throughout New Jersey. The participants of the Harriet Tubman-William Still Underground Railroad Walk across New Jersey began the 180-mile journey from Greenville (Cumberland County) to Jersey City. Arriving in Jersey City on day fourteen, they visited the statue of Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln Park, the Metropolitan AME Zion Church at 140 Belmont Avenue and the Hilton-Holden House before attending the concluding program in New Jersey at Liberty State Park. The walk concluded where slaves had entered Jersey City some 360 years ago.
Cunningham, Glenn. "Hidden Footprints: The African Presence in Jersey City pre-1900." VHS copy of Jersey City Cable TV Documentary, 1991.
Eaton, Harriet P. Jersey City and Its Historic Sites. Jersey City, NJ: Women's Club of Jersey City, 1899.
Grundy, J. Owen. "Abraham Lincoln Spoke in Jersey City," 1981at Anthony Olszewski, GetNJ, 2002. http://www.cityofjerseycity.org/lincoln/index.shtml Grundy's reference about the political views of the Jersey City Courier and Advertiser (1857-1862) may be incorrect. Its publisher William B. Dunning was a Republican, supported Lincoln and served with a NJ Regiment during the Civil War.
"Jersey City Was Hub for the Underground Railroad." The Catholic Advocate 20 February 2013.
Mc Lean, Alexander. "The Underground Railroad in Jersey City." Historical Society of Hudson County, October 30, 1908. ts. 14 pp. Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.
New Jersey Historical Commission, A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey. http://www.state.nj.us/nj/about/history/underground_railroad.html
"Opinion" Jersey Journal. 28 April 1999.
Wiggins, Genene P. "Danger-filled Path to Freedom Led Slaves through Jersey City." Jersey Journal 14 March 1994.
Wright, Giles R. Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History. Trenton, NJ: Historical Commission, 1988.
Year Book of the Holland Society of New York: 1914 Bergen Book. Vol. II. New York City, 19l5.
Zinsli, Christopher. "Jersey City's Underground Railroad History: Thousands of Former Slaves Sought Freedom by Passing through Jersey City." Jersey City Magazine 23 March 2007.