NJ’s new Black Heritage Trail will boost pride and tourism. here’s how

For four centuries, New Jersey’s black community has helped shape the state’s history, culture, arts, sciences, government, educational and religious institutions, businesses and industry. For as long, black residents have been calling for equality, justice and an end to racism.

From north to south, this state we find ourselves in is full of places where important events in black history took place. Some are well known, like the Cape May Museum honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Paterson Stadium which housed the first black professional baseball leagues. But many are obscure, known to few outside their immediate area.

Thanks to a bill recently signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy, it will soon be easier to visit places that can help illuminate stories of the black experience that have gone largely unrecognized. The bill creates the Black Heritage Trail, which will take visitors on a winding journey through the state, using historical markers to describe the contributions of notable black residents and institutions.

The bipartisan bill was proposed by Cape May County Assemblyman Antwan McClellan and passed unanimously in both houses of the state legislature. It allows for the creation of a Black Heritage Trail Commission, which will receive a $1 million budget to choose sites, design and place markers, and promote the trail.

“This trail will shine a light on black abolitionists, veterans, artists, entertainers and other leaders who have left their indelible mark on New Jersey’s history and deserve to be recognized and celebrated,” McClellan said in a statement. .

Considered the first of its kind in the country, the Black Heritage Trail is expected to boost tourism and provide an unparalleled educational resource. Visitors will be able to download itineraries and maps for a trip of up to three days to visit a multitude of monuments, heritage sites, museums and attractions.

Here are some must-see places:

  • Cape May: The Harriet Tubman Museum opened in 2021 to honor the civil rights icon who escaped slavery and helped free dozens of other slaves on the Underground Railroad. Tubman lived and worked in Cape May for a time raising funds to support her missions.
  • Patson: Hinchliffe Stadium, currently undergoing renovations, is one of the last remaining Negro League venues from the early 1900s. It was here that city native and Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby spent his formative years before becoming the first black player in the American League in 1947.
  • Lawn side: This Camden County town, founded in 1840, was the first incorporated, self-governing black township north of the Mason-Dixon line.
  • Red Bank: This is the town where legendary jazz musician, bandleader and composer William James “Count” Basie was raised and learned to play the piano. There is now a thriving performing arts center named in his honor.
  • Atlantic City: The city best known for its casinos and nightlife has a long black history. In the age of segregation, black families who wanted to swim in the ocean had to go to the now famous “Chicken Bone Beach”. Today, Atlantic City also has a Civil Rights Garden and an African American Heritage Museum.

These are just a fraction of the state’s significant and fascinating black heritage sites.

There is also the African American Historical Society Museum in Jersey City, the SMA Fathers Museum of African Art in Tenafly, the Macedonian African Methodist Episcopal Church and Butler Cemetery in Camden, the Perth Amboy Grave of Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first black American to vote in an election; and the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains, the first black-owned golf and country club in the United States.

A few lesser-known black heritage sites that should be part of the trail include the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Montgomery Township; Marshalltown, a settlement in Mannington Township where African American freeholders flourished throughout the 19th century; Timbuktu in Westampton Township, a 19e century colony believed to have been founded by runaway slaves; and the Medford Township office of Dr. James Still, a renowned herbalist and homeopathic healer known as “The Black Doctor of the Pines.”

“The inclusion of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) in New Jersey’s Black Heritage Trail represents an important recognition of the history of African American communities in the Sourland region, ranging from the days of slavery to today, and their substantial contributions to the cultural and economic development of central New Jersey,” said Donnetta Johnson, the museum’s executive director.

“Including the site of Dr. James Still’s historic office on the Black Heritage Trail would be awesome and well-deserved,” said historian Samuel Still, a descendant of James Still, noting that it is the only historic site in the Black Heritage Trail system. state parks named after an African. American.

Other candidates include the Red Bank home of T. Thomas Fortune, a prominent African-American journalist and civil rights activist in the early 1900s; the Trenton school at the center of a 1940s New Jersey Supreme Court decision ending segregation, and a Bordentown school for blacks once known as the “Tuskegee of the North”.

This legislation and this funding is a great start to showcasing and connecting these places, but we must also continue to seek ways to protect, restore and manage these important places that have contributed to who we are as a state and nation.

New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in America, and the Black Heritage Trail will highlight the accomplishments and contributions of the black community, as well as its trials and tribulations. In the state’s quest for equity, unity and inclusion, this type of educational tourism is necessary and welcome!

Much of the groundwork for the Black Heritage Trail has already been laid. Last year, the state’s Travel and Tourism Division created a website with a preliminary list of sites; see them at https://visitnj.org/Black-Heritage.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s lands and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at [email protected]

Jay Watson is co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

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