Professor Unearths Slave Graves

By AUDREY ZABOHONSKI
On February 14, 2013

New evidence found down Route 202 by Adjunct Professor Jeff Williamson could indicate the existence of slavery during the 1700s and 1800s in New Jersey.

Williamson began investigating a family cemetery behind Ramapo's sculpture garden on Ramapo Valley Road with a group of volunteers last fall, and found 15 gravestones dating back hundreds of years. The gravestones contained members of the Laroe, Hopper, Bogert, Terhune and Hagerman families, all of whom were affluent, early settlers in the area directly surrounding Ramapo's campus before Mahwah was incorporated as a city.

Down the street from the family cemetery is another cemetery with a much different story. The Hoppers and the Bogerts, according to Williamson, were slave-owning families that buried their slaves and freed men working for them in a cemetery located just a short distance away. This racially segregated system was apparently common during the 1700s and 1800s, even though today's textbooks do not portray New Jersey as a slave-owning state.

"New Jersey wasn't a free state-we grandfathered slavery," Williamson said. "Slavery is not a southern issue, it's an American issue. Black cemeteries are all over the place up here."

Across the street from the Ramapo Reformed Church is another racially segregated cemetery separated by a stone wall, this one containing nearly 100 graves.

The gravesites, which have sat as untaxed land for nearly 150 years, are now the property of the county.  Williamson heard about the cemeteries originally from a former student, and after checking them out, he asked the Mahwah Historical Society for funding to clean up the area and fix any visible damages to the graves. Williamson and the group of volunteers that have begun cleaning the site run a Facebook page called "Grave Matters" that chronicles the photos, genealogy and other findings that they make.  

Through his research, Williamson has pieced together the history of most of the members buried in the family cemetery and has discovered that a few of the people buried in the cemetery are located further down the road. Williamson explained that finding the names has been easier than discovering the stories linked to the names. So far, Williamson has been able to recover the gravestones of Samuel Jennings, who worked for the Havemeyers, Joseph Harrison and three children from the Harrison aged two, three and 10.

The project is not without its obstacles-the Ramapo River has eroded some of the graves, and most likely sucked in the gate, which used to stand as an entrance to the family cemetery. The Ramapough Conservancy has also halted the project for what Williamson hopes is only a brief time. The Conservancy wanted to look into whether or not the slaves and freed men buried in one of the cemeteries might have any Ramapough descent, and what that would mean to the project.

"My main goal is to preserve it, but I want to be sensitive to what the Ramapough Conservancy wants," Williamson said.

Williamson hopes to get back into the cemetery sites by March at the latest, as he hopes to start seeding the area in the spring. The naturally growing creeping myrtle plant has helped to protect the site, but Williamson would like to seed wildflowers and low grass there as well.

"These plants are low maintenance but will keep the area looking nice," Williamson said.

Aside from maintaining the appearance of the gravesites, repairing the major damage the graves have suffered from hundreds of years of neglect is another project, as well as protecting the site from vandalism or harm from human and natural destruction.

"I want to get the cemeteries protected by a historical society so we can preserve and protect them from becoming more damaged," Williamson continued about the cemeteries.

Williamson and the group of volunteers have also begun marking important findings with orange flags, another factor that would require the sites to have protection.   

Eventually the Hoppers' land was bought by the Havemeyer family in the 1860s to build a house for their daughter. Around 40 years later, the Birch family acquired the land and eventually Ramapo bought it. The building is now Birch Mansion.

Williamson hopes to continue his research in uncovering and preserving old gravesites, and more information about the projects is available on https://www.facebook.com/gravematters73


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