In re-installing its first-floor galleries, Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton is showing a part of its history that was for many years swept under the carpet.
While the upstairs galleries attract visitors with rotating exhibitions, the first floor tells the story of the National Historic Landmark as, first, home to the Stockton family and, later, as a governor’s residence during five administrations (before Drumthwacket became the official Governor’s Mansion).
In this newly interpreted installation, Morven residents featured in the exhibition go beyond those whose lives are documented in history books, such as Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence, to include the enslaved men, women, and children, as well as servants and other key figures who helped the governor’s residence function.
“Historic Morven: A Window into America’s Past” came about through a meticulous review of oral histories, papers, and artifacts, relying on community input. The historically African American Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood community participated in envisioning the project. And through a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Humanities, a consultant was bought in to meet with staff and board members about how to talk about the history of slavery at Morven.
“The impetus was to have a more comprehensive look at the site and the people who lived here,” says Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan who, with registrar Jesse Gordon, spent countless hours researching and rewriting the history. “We built on the scholarship of Wanda Gunning and Constance Grieff, and their book ‘Morven: Myth, Memory and Reality,’ that was used when Morven opened as a museum in 2004,” says Allan, who joined the museum eight years ago. Gordon has been on staff for seven.
“With the grand reopening of our newly imagined first floor permanent galleries, more than 200 years of American stories are being told and shared at Morven,” says Morven Executive Director Jill Barry. “Morven tells a uniquely American story through the people who have walked through its halls. Looking at America through the lens of Morven, our new exhibition expands our narrative by adding the voices of the many people who lived and worked at Morven, including women, children, generations of enslaved men and women, immigrant servants, and later, employees.”
The identities of enslaved people are difficult to uncover, as their stories were not valued by those recording history, according to exhibition materials. Census records help, although only men who were able to work were required to be listed—this leaves the number of enslaved women, children, and the elderly unknown.
As wealthy lawyers, the first two generations of Stocktons at Morven owned slaves. The Stocktons lived a comfortable lifestyle and increased their wealth with forced labor. Like other signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton did not seem to struggle with the inconsistency of owning people in bondage while signing a document that declared “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One of the buildings at Morven, formerly known as the “slaves’ quarters,” is now known to have been servants’ quarters. “We know that slaves lived at Morven, but we don’t know where they slept,” says Allan. Census records, records from the Somerset County Clerk’s office, and the website ancestry.com show that a baby named Kate was born on the property. The exhibition shows a page from an 1804 medical ledger indicating that a black baby was delivered. In 1804 New Jersey passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery that required the registration of the birth of every child. Richard “the Duke” (son of “the Signer”) Stockton, was required to register the birth of the child.
The same act stipulated that a female child born after July 4, 1804, “shall be free; but shall remain the servant of his or her owner … until the age of 21.” Robert Field Stockton — known as “the Commodore,” for his role in the Navy during the Mexican-American War — was known to have had a slave named “Kate” whom he freed when she was over 21.
“We don’t know much about her, but by piecing together people’s lives we hope to find more,” says Allan.
Marcus Marsh was born into slavery at Morven on April 1, 1765. His mother may have died or been sold shortly thereafter, and so Annis Stockton — the wife of Richard “the Signer,” a poet, and one of the first women to be published in the colonies (it was Annis whose chose the Morven name, Gaelic for “big hill”) — served as wet nurse to Marcus.
Upon her husband’s death in 1781, Annis freed Marcus, and he went to live and work with Annis’s friends Julia and Benjamin Rush, working alongside Dr. Rush as he battled the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia.
Annis wrote in a letter to Dr. Rush that she “almost brought up” Marcus like a son. And while Marcus could read and write, there are no letters to show how he felt about the woman who both raised and enslaved him.
A changeable wall has been installed in Morven’s Garden Room to chronicle the enslaved people and servants who lived in the house. Inhabitants of Morven who are known to have been enslaved are labeled as such, while names without labels represent inhabitants whose status at Morven is unclear — they may have been paid servants or enslaved.
In the 20th century not all employees lived on site. However, many are included here, as they were key members of the Morven household.
The plan is to continuously add to this wall as new findings come in. As comprehensive as it seems — the scroll of names fills two large walls — “we had a hard time finding people who worked for the governors,” says Allan, who pored through newspaper articles. Oral histories were conducted, including with Governor Brendan Byrne before his death in early 2018. “Some of the governors’ children remember state troopers as a constant presence in their lives — they would hang out together and play cards.”
Since the wall was first printed in early fall, a gardener, his wife, and baby have been added.
In this exhibition Morven has taken the bold step of showing the darker side of some of its residents. Richard “the Duke” chaired the Princeton Vigilante Society, an organization that monitored the activities of apprentices and African Americans. As treasurer and a trustee of Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey), the Duke stood by the expulsion of half the student body after their petitions and protests for more personal liberty.
The Commodore was an active member of the American Colonization Society in Princeton, which espoused that freed slaves should be returned to Africa. Founded by Princeton alumni, it evolved as a nativist and racist group seeking to rid the country of freed slaves and to diminish the association of races.
Although he couldn’t have slaves at Morven because of New Jersey’s 1804 Act, the Commodore had 108 slaves on his plantation in Georgia, 39 of whom were under the age of 10. In 1820 he sailed to Africa and helped the society secure the land that became Liberia and established a colony for freed slaves.
A quote by the Commodore is shown on the wall: “That vast continent is said to contain 50 millions of Inhabitants; whose pleasures are sloth, and idleness; their employments, rapine and murder … that immense population, vitiated and debased by the most profound ignorance, and unrestrained barbarism.”
“By showing this, we are not celebrating it but want to acknowledge it, rather than whitewash it. It’s definitely a shock. And it’s still relevant today,” says Allan.
With the gradual abolition of slavery in New Jersey, the Stocktons began to rely on immigrant servants to run the Morven household and land.
The section on the governors period includes images of such notable visitors as then Senator John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, Ethel Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Buzz Aldrin. At that time the mansion had a staff of secretaries, police, cooks, and housekeepers. Allan notes that Governor Richard Hughes lived in Morven during the “Newark Riots.”
Triggered by the arrest and beating of an African-American cab driver, the Newark rebellion lasted for six days as America watched the city explode over racial tensions and police violence, according to exhibition materials. After two days of looting and arson, Hughes deployed the National Guard and state police to try to control the chaos. But the guardsmen were untrained in riot suppression, and their machine gun fire raked housing projects with families inside. Meanwhile, rumors of African-American snipers filled the newspapers each day.
By the time it was over 26 people were dead, mostly bystanders, including women and children. More than 700 were injured, many with multiple gunshot wounds. President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and ordered an investigation.
Hughes sat on one of the advisory panels that found there had been no snipers and that the first shot was fired by a National Guard member ordered to keep people inside a housing project away from their windows.
“Who decides what’s called a rebellion and what is called a riot?” Allan asks. “The black community had no representation in government at the time.” The commission found that unjust police practices, unemployment, and inadequate housing were among African-American grievances not being addressed by the city. Many white New Jerseyans remember the looting and fire, but for the African-American community it marked a fight for basic human rights that was brutally put down.
A film reel in the gallery shows Hughes getting the call about the situation in Newark. To watch this film or read an edition of LIFE magazine from the era visitors can sit on a sofa that was among the governor’s furnishings. Rescued from a storage unit, is was accessioned to give visitors a sense of what it is like to sit on the governor’s furniture, and is another sign of how the museum wants to welcome visitors and grant access to a part of history.
“The exhibition is like the scaffolding for what we want to show,” says Allan. “We hope to tackle even more in educational programs.”
Historic Morven: A Window into America’s Past, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $8 to $10. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.