“The Trent House represents where we began as Trentonians,” says newly elected board president Princess Hoagland about the 1719 brick mansion that was the home of Trenton’s namesake, William Trent.
“It is a place for us to go and learn how we came to be here,” she continues layering the plot of land’s history from the Leni Lenape to the British colonization. “We just don’t know who we are if we don’t look back. The land that (the Trent House) sits on tells us a story.”
To argue her point, Hoagland mentions a July, 2020, archaeology dig conducted by Hunter Research in Trenton. She said that experience showed how history is hidden from everyday living. “Just two feet deep, we were looking at artifacts that the Leni Lenape had left behind. Higher than that were those from the British and enslaved people. I am fascinated by how we can tell a story by the artifacts we found.”
Hoagland says her interest in the Trent House came several years ago when she brought her children and grandchildren to an ice cream social and took advantage of a tour of Trenton’s oldest building.
“It took me until my 50s until I got involved. But I think that is the experience of many Trentonians,” she says. “Many people are not aware of where it is. And it is hidden behind state buildings. We don’t understand its significance. We take it for granted.
“I lived in Trenton all my life. I heard of the Trent House, but I didn’t understand its significance.”
Yet, she says, what she heard during the tour about the personal lives of the Trents and how objects and materials in the house designated status got her interested in learning more and opening a new chapter of her own history.
Referring to herself a “lifelong learner” engaged in several community projects, Hoagland says she got interested in the house and made several return visits. Then in 2017, after her interest was noticed by the former board president, Carolyn Stetson, she was asked if she was interested in participating on the board.
A person of African ancestry in a city populated mainly by people of the same heritage, Hoagland asked about the makeup of the board. When she heard it was primarily older Caucasians, she agreed.
“I was honored to be asked. Having the opportunity to learn about my history as a Trentonian and our history of our country was appealing to me,” she says.
A National Historic Landmark, the 11-room American-Georgian style structure built by wealthy Scottish-born businessman William Trent later housed both Loyalists and Revolutionaries during Revolutionary War, was visited by General George Washington, and was the home of three New Jersey Governors.
Privately owned until 1929, the Trent House was donated to the City of Trenton, which partners with the Trent House Association to operate the building as a museum.
Yet despite its gloss, the house has a dark foundation. Trent’s wealth came in part from his involvement with the slave trade, and slaves were kept at the house.
“It is not that we didn’t expect it,” says Hoagland about the reality. And since the slavery aspect of Trent’s history was not well known and missing from the regular school curriculum, the Trent House board and administration are looking for ways to tell a fuller yet more nuanced story.
“We need to be sensitive that we do not group people as inventory but as human beings who were enslaved. We need to think about how they survived and their resiliency. We want to make those people come to life and let them tell a story that connects with current African-Americans. It helps us connect the dots and is forcing us to understand a timeline that tells a story that includes the Great Migration” and how they connected with people of African ancestry already in Trenton.
She also says the museum “really needs to learn what happened to the people that Trent had who were enslaved. We know of one man who was sold in New York and who escaped and was brought back. But we don’t if they went with Trent’s wife or Trent’s son (after Trent died suddenly in 1724). There are a lot of missing pieces.
“The whole narrative of what life was like for slaves we’re going to have to extrapolate. It is a painful history, but we have to talk about it so we can move in the future — all of us. We need to understand that as human beings we have done things that are crimes against humanity. Everyone is tainted by it. It’s nobody’s fault today. But we can do something about it right now so life is equitable for everyone.”
That includes the people in Hoagland’s native Trenton.
The daughter of a Delaval employee from Georgia and a Mercer Hospital cafeteria worker from South Carolina, Hoagland says she spent most of her preteen and early adulthood in the Miller Homes housing project.
She graduated from Trenton Central High in 1981 and has an associate’s degree in business from Mercer County Community College and a B.A. and M.A. in business administration from Rutgers.
In addition to pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership at Stockton University, the business consultant, wife, and mother of five adult children served on several regional boards and committees of nonprofit organizations including the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, League of Women Voters of Lawrence Township, Locust Hill Cemetery and Interpretive Center Project, Campaign to End the New Jim Crow-Greater Trenton, Trenton Civic Trust, Fisher/Richey/Perdicaris Historic District Civic Association, and Urban Mental Health Alliance.
She credits two organizations for building the social awareness she hopes to bring to Trent House programming.
Not In Our Town Princeton’s First Monday Conversations were “the first time I was engaged in learning about how the history in our country affects oppressed people. Because I had never taken an African American history class I was never aware of the particulars — realizing that people are being intentional about oppressing other people. And how unbeknownst to ourselves we’re helping to perpetuate the oppression of others.”
The Urban Mental Health Alliance allowed her to explore the trauma experienced by oppressed people and their attempt to normalize it by taking on roles like the “strong black mother” or learning to ignore feelings in order to accommodate the oppressive dominate culture.
She is also grateful for social media. “There is a chance for misinformation that can be shared. But we have the opportunity to research for ourselves,” she says.
Talking about the challenges she faces at the Trent Houses, she says, “Technology is one. We have to upgrade our Wi-Fi services. We also have to make sure our building has the proper HVAC system. We’re looking at the challenges most museums have: low visitorship.
She says another challenge “is how we tell the whole story, the complete story. Generally we tell the story from the male perspective and look at everything connected to him as property — including his wife and children. We’re trying to tell everyone’s story, including people of African ancestry who were enslaved.
“We want to makes sure we are respectful and sensitive. We had a community advisory committee made up of African Americans who grew up in and around Trenton. One of those members said we don’t want to be just doom and gloom, and we don’t. But we want to be truthful.”
Meanwhile, in addition to updating information on the Trent House website, Hoagland and the board are busy planning for reopening and raising programming funds. “Because the Trent House is owned by the City of Trenton, we provided a proposal on how to reopen and keep our visitors safe. We are waiting for a response from the city.”
They are also taking stock of what other museums are doing to prepare for reopening and begin a strategic plan for future programming — one that touches the community and increases visitors.
“It is important that we be relevant to our community,” she says.
1719 William Trent House Museum, 15 Market Street, Trenton. www.williamtrenthouse.org.