The Pennington Public Library will put a spotlight on slavery in New Jersey with a Zoom discussion led by “Stories of Slavery in New Jersey” author Rick Geffken on Sunday, January 31, at 3 p.m.
The co-author of “Highland Beach, Gateway to the Jersey Shore, 1888-1962” and “Lost Amusement Parks of the North Jersey Shore,” Geffken is a trustee of the Shrewsbury Historical Society; a member of the Monmouth County Historical Association; past-president and a trustee of the Jersey Coast Heritage Museum at Sandlass House; and a former Hewlett-Packard sales executive.
His “Stories of Slavery in New Jersey” was released in January by The History Press, a division of Arcadia Publishing.
In the following excerpt from his book’s introduction, Geffken quickly sets up the often neglected reality of slavery in New Jersey and provides a preview of his Pennington Library presentation:
This is a book of stories about Black people enslaved by white people in New Jersey. If that’s a hard statement to read, it was equally difficult for me to discover this truth so late in my life. Living in the Garden State for over seven decades now, I’m incredulous that I knew nothing about slavery for most of them. I don’t think the good Sisters of St. Francis, or the Jesuits – teachers who bookended my formal education — were hiding any of this awful history. I want to believe they didn’t know about it either.
Slavery was “baked into” New Jersey from its very beginnings. In the 1664-65 “Concession and Agreement of the Lords Proprietors of the Province of New Caesarea, or New Jersey,” Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret granted prospective colonists 75 acres of land “for every weaker servant, or slave, male or female, exceeding the age of 14 years, which any one shall send or carry, arriving there.” Meant to jumpstart a new agricultural community, this provision of one of New Jersey’s founding documents nonetheless made chattel slavery foundational.
Perhaps the first slave law was the one passed by the Elizabeth-Town General Assembly in 1668. Designed to protect white slave owners from losing their human property, its terms were stark: (If) any man shall willfully or forcibly steal away any mankind (read slave), he shall be put to death.”
What followed were decades of increasingly restrictive rules and regulations controlling the behavior of people enslaved in New Jersey. As the Black population increased — peaking at over 12,000 at the turn of the 19th century — white slaveholders lived in escalating fear that their slaves would rebel and avenge their oppressive treatment. Sometimes they did.
Laws were passed that sought to control slaves through the application of severe physical penalties — deformities, burnings, hangings — for even minor infractions. Slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write, to travel without proper papers or passes or to own firearms or real estate. Harsh punishments were not only doled out to offending slaves but often to their owners as well.
New Jersey’s slave laws were often about revenue generation and economic growth and less about enlightened moral positions. For instance, a 1714 statute imposed a 10-pound duty on each imported slave. It was designed to bring in more white servants by making it more expensive to bring in slaves — not to discourage slavery. In any event, there were workarounds to avoid the tax; slaves were imported into other colonies and then brought to New Jersey. A few decades later, duties like this were discouraged so more Black slaves could relieve labor shortages.
Other New Jersey slave laws were actually disincentives. A 1713 change to the slave code addressing the manumission of slaves required a burdensome security deposit of 200 pounds and an additional 20 pounds annually to support the freed person for life. Few slaveholders could afford this payment, which was equivalent to over $50,000 and $5,000 today.
New Jersey grappled with slavery agonizingly slowly. A 1786 law imposed a penalty of 50 pounds for anyone who had brought slaves from Africa after 1776. It called importation a “barbarous custom of bringing the unoffending Africans from the native country.” Two years later, it was amended, and strengthened, by adding forfeiture of slave ships and their cargo. But the law didn’t abolish slavery. On and on it went for years, depending on labor needs and with little regard for the Black human beings forced to generate profits and to provide easier lives for the white people in charge.
At the national level, there was at least one missed opportunity involving New Jersey. When the newly triumphant United States was forming a government after the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson proposed banning slavery in expansion territories. On April 23, 1784, New Jersey delegate Dr. John Beatty, who agreed with Jefferson, was sick and missed the final vote on the issue. The slavery provision never made it into the Ordinance of 1784.
In 1804, New Jersey passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. This was an attempt to address both the interests of those who depended on enslaved people and their opponents in the growing abolition movement. It mandated that slaves born after July 4, 1804, had to serve for 25 years before manumission and females for 20 years. The act was a compromise, as if there could ever be legal balance to America’s original sin. It was a sad admission that some people insisted that their survival depended on human “machines” to grow and harvest their crops, to build their houses, to take care of their children, and to perform every demeaning task imaginable.
The New Jersey State Constitution of 1844 declared that “all men are by nature free and independent.” As favorable as this sounded to slaves and abolitionists, a year later, the state supreme court ruled that this was only “a general proposition,” and it didn’t apply to “man in his private, individual, or domestic capacity . . . or to interfere with his domestic relations.” In effect, the highest court in New Jersey said the “free and independent” only applied to white men. Once again, New Jersey refused to outlaw slavery.
The 1846 Act to Abolish Slavery, as good as its title sounded, merely changed the description of the subjugated from “slaves” to “apprentices for life.” It did, however, allow that children born to slaves thereafter “shall be absolutely free from their birth.” How many slaves were affected is difficult to know. Though the next two federal census reports showed decreasing numbers of slaves in New Jersey, the numbers were deceptive because they did not list “apprentices.”
Just before the Civil War, the New Jersey census listed 18 slaves. (The actual number was probably a bit higher). When the war fought over slavery ended, New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery — reluctantly. Our legislature agreed to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in January 1866, only after the required three-fourths of the existing 36 states had already done so. New Jersey, which hadn’t supported Abraham Lincoln in the elections of 1860 and 1864, shrugged and went along with the fait accompli.
Finally, as if these failures to correct this historic crime against humanity weren’t enough, in 1868, New Jersey withdrew its ratification of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship and equal protection to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, including former slaves.
In 2007, 140 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, the New Jersey Legislature passed a resolution expressing “profound regret for the State’s role in slavery” and apologized “for the wrong inflicted by slavery and its effects in the United States of America.” This was remarkably late considering that New Jersey was the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights in 1789.
Note: I started writing this book before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day 2020. His death and those of other Black men and women closer to home are the direct results of the shamefully long aftertaste of slavery. I see hope that the resultant national protests will change how we live together everywhere in this country.
“Stories of Slavery in New Jersey” by Rick Geffken, 208 pages, $21.99, The History Press. The Pennington Public Library’s Zoom presentation by Geffken is set for Sunday, January 31, 3 p.m., Free. Registration Required. Details at www.penningtonlibrary.org/slaverystoriesnj.