Jersey City was the last "station" on the Underground Railroad route through New Jersey. Thousands of enslaved people who fled states like Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina traveled to the Delaware River, crossed to New Jersey, and continued to Jersey City.
Jersey City was the former colonial Dutch settlement of New Netherland at Harsimus. From the 1640s, slave traders brought Africans here to be sold. Some were enslaved or became indentured servants for potential freedom. Settlers, whose names appear on the city's street signs, purchased the African captives to work on their properties. Prominent local slave-owning families included the Brinkerhoff, Garrabrant, Newkirk, Prior, Tuer, Van Horns, Van Reypen, Van Vorst, Van Winkle, and Vreeland.
One of the first-known local slaveholders was Jacob Stoffelsen (1601-1677). Before moving to Harsimus, Stoffelsen worked as the "Commissary of Stores" for the Dutch West India Company and an overseer of slaves in New Amsterdam. He married Vrouwtje Ides Van Vorst, the second wife of Cornelius Van Vorst, and inherited her estate.
Enslaved persons were held as personal property and were sometimes given away by the slave owner. Stoffelsen received a slave from Captain Guert Tysen in exchange for the hospitality shown him at the Van Vorst estate. Tysen, a privateer, had anchored his ship at Harsimus (near Henderson Street and now Newport Mall) during his stay at the Van Vorst home. Holland Society of New York records claim a dispute occurred over Stoffelsen's ownership of the slave and 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.
Enslaved Africans attended Dutch religious services and learned the Dutch language. In 1679, Joachem Anthony, a free Dutch-speaking Black from New Amsterdam, joined the congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church (now Old Bergen Church in Jersey City). The church's "Register of Communicants Being Persons of Color" includes the names of other Black church members. The Reverend John Cornelison (1793-1828) ministered to Black slaves in Bergen township. He held religious services and reading instruction in his home at today's Bergen and Sip Avenues. Many Blacks joined white congregations before the founding of African-American churches in Jersey City in the 1850s.
The slave trade in Bergen County (now Bergen and Hudson Counties) remained lucrative through the eighteenth century. Captain Thomas Brown made his fortune as a slave trader. His home, named Retirement Hall, was located on the Upper New York Bay coast at Linden Avenue and had easy access to the water. Boats could dock alongside his house and unload their human cargo. The enslaved Blacks were chained in the basement of his home until they were sold.
An 1841 map identifies an early "African burying ground" on the estate of slave owner Cornelius Garrabrant. Funerals for enslaved persons took place in his Communipaw area house, now at Phillip Street. Burials were behind the house 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).
New Jersey's Abolitionist Movement
New Jersey's slow legal elimination of slavery began in 1804 with the passage of the Gradual Abolition Act. It did not prohibit slavery but freed the children born to slaves after July 4th of that year. In 1790, Bergen County (that included Bergen and Hudson counties before 1840) 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. Forty years later, the state constitution limited the right to vote to white males only. The provision was based on an 1807 statute that withdrew the right to vote to formerly qualified women and freed slaves under the state constitution of 1776. A law for the elimination of slavery was not passed until 1846. These provisions reduced New Jersey's slave population to 236 in 1850. However, the US Census still recorded 18 slaves, referred to as "apprentices," in the state in 1860 and 648 "colored" [sic] persons in Hudson County, which had a total population of 62,717.
During the antebellum period, an estimated fifty to seventy thousand enslaved persons passed through Jersey City on their way to freedom. The four escape lines, starting from Camden, Salem, Greenwich, and Trenton, converged at "stations" like Bordentown and Burlington that led to Jersey City. Upon arrival, many took leave for Canada or New York.
One route followed the Belleville Turnpike from Newark 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 ferryboats and coal boats to take them across the Hudson River, or the "River Jordan," for Canada, New England, or New York City. New York had a sizable free Black population offering some fugitives anonymity. Some Blacks exited Jersey City from Harsimus Cove near the foot of Washington Street or Montgomery Street (today's Exchange Place). Local historians claim they may have unloaded cargo on New York City ships in exchange for transportation across the river. The ferryboats took them to the Hudson River Passenger Station at the corner of Church and Chambers Streets in New York City.
New Jersey's strict enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott Decision (1857) made neither New Jersey nor Jersey City a likely destination for many fugitive slaves. Their passage made it increasingly profitable to kidnap runaway slaves and more dangerous for abolitionists who assisted on the Underground Railroad.
Jersey City's Response
In Jersey City, residents were generally antagonistic to the abolitionist movement and differed regarding the future of slavery. 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. Viewed as an alternative to abolition, colonization, it was held, might even benefit the enslaved by removing them outside the United States.
Congregations, like the First Baptist Church on Clinton Avenue, banned abolitionist speeches indicating sympathy for the South. Other congregations were divided over abolition, and many city abolitionists found the Congregational Tabernacle Church at the southeast corner of York Street and Marin Boulevard (Henderson Street) in 1858. Referred to as "the first successful congregational church in Jersey City," its pastor, Reverend John Milton Holmes, hid fugitive slaves in the church. During the Civil War, it encouraged Jersey City residents to support the Union. In later years, the Tabernacle Church became known as the "People's Palace" for its work among the city's poor.
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." Holden hid fugitive slaves in the basement, which had a fireplace for the temporary occupants. An amateur astronomer, Holden built an observatory on the roof of his house. From the observatory, he received signals for the movement of those sequestered in his home. In his TV documentary Hidden Footprints, Mayor of Jersey City Glenn Cunningham claims the Holden House to be 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).
Another local abolitionist was Dr. Henry D. Holt, a physician and a former clerk of the Common Council of Jersey City. His home at 134 Washington Street at 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 that contributed to helping fugitive slaves. Everett served as "a conductor," providing escape routes out of Jersey City.
Thomas Vreeland Jackson and John Vreeland Jackson, born in 1800 and 1803, were enslaved 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. Their home was a "station" on the Underground Railroad in Greenville, and they helped numerous slaves escape.
At the Martin Luther King Station on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, a plaque displays the following: "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. The civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Metropolitan AME Zion Church on March 27, 1968, a week before his death. He also received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Saint Peter's College (now University) on September 21, 1965, at its Michaelmas Convocation.
A local Jersey City newspaper, The American Standard (1859-1875), published by John H. Lyons, reflected the views of the "Copperhead" faction of the Democratic Party regarding slavery. It faulted the abolitionist movement for the Civil War and opposed the presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln's opponents supported the Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas, who carried New Jersey in the election. Democrats dominated Hudson County, and the newspaper was regarded as "Democratic." The Copperhead dissenters 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. New Jersey voted against the re-election of President Lincoln in 1864, and the legislature voted against the passage of the Thirteen Amendment to abolish slavery.
Twenty-first Century Commemoration
From September 29 to October 13, 2002, New Jersey witnessed a reenactment of the Underground Railroad in the Harriet Tubman-William Still Underground Railroad Walk. The participants traveled the 180-miles 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 at Liberty State Park. The walk concluded where enslaved Blacks had entered Jersey City many 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 to 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.