A debut history book focuses on a New Jersey cemetery while exploring the whole spectrum of the black experience in the region.
Buck and Mills both have deep familial ties to the Stoutsburg Cemetery near Hopewell, New Jersey. They have jointly served as trustees of the cemetery’s association for more than 30 years. In 2006, someone, distraught over the possibility that a nearby but unofficial burial ground would soon be bulldozed, contacted Buck. The authors immersed themselves in research in order to find documentary evidence of the land’s hallowed purpose, a task that begat this extended “detective-labor-of-love.” The result is a panoramic history of the African-American experience in New Jersey and the region, concentrating on the Stoutsburg Cemetery, a powerful reminder of the segregation that persisted long after the demise of slavery. In fact, a state law made it criminal to bury blacks and whites on the same grounds; it was finally overturned in 1884. The historical landscape traversed is expansive. The authors discuss the centrality of the church for African-Americans in the area, the history of the black population’s military service, and the nature of black land ownership, which provided “real power and sovereignty” for otherwise disenfranchised citizens. They also dispel the myth that slavery in the North was more humanely practiced than in the South. New Jersey was in fact a brutal participant in and advocate of slave ownership. At the heart of this moving chronicle is the authors’ impassioned desire to “break the cycle of America’s historical omissions” regarding its black citizens whose significant contributions have often been consigned to oblivion. “The challenges that African Americans face in proving their family history is a direct result of the lack of primary documentation—records of accomplishments or achievements in their lives,” the authors assert. The study is meticulously documented and written in prose that is always lucid and often stirring. The authors tend to confront readers with mountains of detail—family genealogies and even recipes are provided—but given the mission to disinter a buried history, it’s hard to quibble with their zeal.
A stunningly thorough and poignant study of African-Americans.