RITUALS OF RESISTANCE
"I [patroller's name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God."
-- North Carolina Slave Patrol Oath
The ongoing struggle between police and Black communities' dates to the creation of Slave Patrols and Black Codes. Slave patrols were created to protect property [slaves] and serve masters [slave owners]. There are countless examples of ads placed by slave owners offering bounties for runaway slaves who “pretends to be free”. These bounty hunters made up slave patrols overseeing local communities, regions and states, hunting and capturing Black enslaved people based on implicit bias. Methods and standards varied from one bounty hunter to another, as well as the level of abuse that captured Blacks (whether born free or enslaved) endured.
Though a northern state and hosting multiple stations, New Jersey was among many states enslaving Africans as a source of profitable labor. In fact, the two counties, Bergen and Essex, were the largest slaveholding counties in the state. Although most northern slaveholding states abolished slavery after the Revolutionary War, New Jersey didn’t officially end slavery until 1866, making it the making it the last state to officially abolish the institution by law. The emancipation proclamation only freed enslaved Africans in mostly southern states but did not free enslaved Africans in northern states.
In 1804, New Jersey passed a Gradual Abolition of Slavery Law delaying the end of slavery for decades by only allowing children of enslaved Blacks born after 1804 to be free. Black children had to reach the age of 21 (for women) and 25 (for men) to earn their emancipatory status.
The Hunted Slave by Richard Ansdell
On to Liberty by Theodor Kaufmann
In 1844, despite efforts of abolitionists, the New Jersey Legislature updated its constitution making no mention of slavery, leaving in place the (original) 1798 slave law. They did, however, change the terms used to identify enslaved people. Where the south had sharecroppers, New Jersey had apprentices. This made tracking the freed Black people much harder considering their status of servitude. Although the number of enslaved people in New Jersey would decrease, the laws continued to protect property owner’s rights – including ownership of people or an apprenticed worker. Here, in SandSJ’s Police Accountability series, a later discussion on Kelly Brown Douglas and Black bodies as property in chattel slavery to protect cherished whiteness is particularly useful (see Part II the theological toolkit here).
In 1849, the legislature passed a joint resolution stating that “the people of New Jersey, believing the institution of human slavery to be a great moral and political evil….” would resist its extension into new territories. Much like the rest of the other states in the North and South, the intent was not to eliminate the institution of slavery, but rather to subtly criticize the nature of enslaving Black people.
This historical backdrop provides the pretext for abolition. Quakers are recorded as the first organized resistance (late 18th century) to aid enslaved people. However, this is a revisionist history favored by dominant narratives. Quakers and white abolitionists acting to free enslaved people overshadow the agency Black people who used their religious beliefs to free themselves. It is out of this freedom struggle that the Black church emerged. Namely, Richard Allen founded the first independent Black denomination (organization) in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1794. Allen became the first elected and consecrated Bishop in African Methodism and Mother Bethel where he pastored was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
After purchasing his own freedom, Allen dedicated his life to religious and social work, by first founding the Free African Society (FAS) in 1787, which was prior to establishing the AME church. Through his work with the FAS, Bishop Allen provided benevolent support to free Africans and their descendants. These efforts expanded after the creation of the AME church and its involvement in the underground railroad.
Hence, the next section chronologically and cartographically highlights the AME’s historical legacy as station masters and stations on the underground railroad’s pathway to freedom.
Bishops of the A.M.E. Church Boston : J.H. Daniels, c1876
Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey
William J. Switala
Mapping Resistance and Black Faith in New Jersey’s Underground Railroad to the Current Day
19th Century: The Underground Railroad
Geographer Dr. Cheryl LaRoche defines Black history as a “geography of resistance” (LaRoche 85). LaRoche explains that freedom is a place. Seen this way, it makes sense that the African slaves mobilized on the Underground Railroad to arrive at the destination of liberation. Most slaves that came from southern states traveled from Maryland to Delaware or Pennsylvania to New York or New Jersey. Specifically, those who came from areas such as Baltimore and Howard County, traveled through Pennsylvania, crossing over from Bethlehem, Easton and Stroudsburg into Trenton’s station before continuing their journey to New Brunswick—the largest free Black community in New Jersey at the time. Thus, charting freedom as a place is to map the slaves’ movements across landscapes where in many cases, churches were a part of the destination.
This cutting-edge research conducted by Salvation and Social Justice proves that liberation is a destination, but more importantly, that faith communities are the conductors—and this has always been the case. Black churches are born out of prophetic resistance to slavery and slave catchers, the predecessors to police and prisons.
This historical legacy compels Black churches to continue the work of liberation. Though slavery has ended, the system of servitude continues with mass incarceration. Prisons are an extension of the plantation. Similar to the church’s participation in the underground railroad to end slavery, today’s freedom movement needs the active presence of faith communities to abolish prisons and dismantle the carceral state. An interim non-reformist reform step to achieve this ultimate goal is: police accountability.
PATHWAY TO FREEDOM
Of all these churches and stations, it is providential that Salvation and Social Justice’s headquarters are at Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. (Trenton, NJ) of which SandSJ’s Executive Director also serves as pastor.
View all the sites along the New Jersey Underground Railroad Routes by clicking the button below