Black Solidarity Week begins with slave cemetery clean up

The Ramapo community came together for Black Solidarity Week to celebrate the college’s Black student body and ancestors. During the entire week of Nov. 7 – 11, the Black Student Union (BSU), the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance (EDIC) and other organizations scheduled a variety of events for the community to partake in. 

On Sunday, a group of about fifteen people headed down Route 202/Ramapo Valley Road to the Hopper Slave Cemetery, only a short walk away from the campus’ main entrance. There, BSU and EDIC hosted a cemetery clean up, where attendees helped rake the leaves and clean up the area around the three visible gravestones with the inscription of five names.

A Silent March and Vigil was held the following afternoon. Students, faculty and staff, including President Cindy Jebb, dressed in black and met at the Arch before marching back to the cemetery. Vice President for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance Nicole Morgan Agard and Rachel Sawyer-Walker, associate director of EDIC, spoke at the vigil.

“Today we remember these individuals and all unknown slaves that are buried on this sacred ground,” Agard said. 

She spoke of the few known slaves that were buried here, but the gravestones did not indicate many other details about them, such as their age or cause of death. Research previously conducted by EDIC and the Center for Student Involvement found that at some point there were a number of other smaller headstones placed around the site, inferring that there are a number of other slaves buried there. 

“This country was built on the backs of many of our enslaved ancestors. People in the North tend to think that slavery was just a southern issue,” Sawyer-Walker said. “The reality is people were enslaved up north, too, even New Jersey.” 

Sawyer-Walker said that Bergen County had a total of 12,422 slaves. New Jersey currently is “sixth in the nation for having the highest segregation of Black students and seventh in the segregation of Latinx students.” Additionally, Black people in the state “are incarcerated at a rate more than 12.5 times out of white people. The level of racial disparities is one of the highest in the nation.”

“Our country has a very deep history that we as a country cannot continue to ignore or erase. It is who we are as a society and we have to be able to acknowledge that,” she said. 

BSU President Quanae Daniels gave each participant an apple slice to throw as part of a libation ritual used in traditional African life. The offering of a liquid or fruit is used as an homage to African ancestors. 

“It’s a sacred covenant between the material and the spiritual world. It is believed that once we have honored that spirit, we have changed the energy in our lives to open a way for them to return blessings and favors,” Agard said. Participants took their slices and threw them down into the stream beside the gravestones. 

Other events for Black Solidarity week consisted of Treat Yo Self! with BSU, EDIC and Commuter Affairs in J. Lee’s after the march and the Black Solidarity Week Opening Banquet Monday night in Friends Hall, where traditional Black cuisine was served with a screening of “High as Hog.”

Tuesday and Wednesday consisted of events ranging from informational discussions and fun activities. Thursday and Friday, too, have events planned. The week will close out Friday night with a Silent Disco. 

Daniels and BSU Secretary Alexis Jones shared that this year’s Black Solidarity Week had much more engagement than last year, which they were excited to see, and they hope to keep the energy up for the remainder of the week. They also said they’ve noticed an overall improvement in Black solidarity on campus over the past year. 

“[It’s improved] mostly because of President Jebb, because with the president prior, we didn’t really get to know him or have him come to our events,” Jones said. “President Jebb definitely helped get more students to come around…It was surprising to me when I saw her.” Jones said Jebb has been very supportive and comes out to many of their events. 

“But we’re still working with students outside of the Black community to feel comfortable coming into [our] room and not being worried,” Jones said. BSU is hoping to have more people reach out to them and get to know the people in their office and be allies. 

“We’re not scary people,” Daniels said. “We’ll invite anyone in if they come in with a positive attitude, but it’s just up to them to be honest. You can ask questions and we’ll answer it as much as we can.”

Photo by Emily Melvin.