February 17, 2016

Book Project On the Stoutsburg Cemetery To Detail Local African American History


PASSING ON A LEGACY: Elaine Buck, left, and Beverly Mills, during a Memorial Day service at the Stoutsburg Cemetery, where their ancestors are buried. The women are co-authors of a book detailing the 300-year history of African Americans in the Hopewell Valley, with the cemetery as a focal point. (Photo by John B. Buck)

It happens again and again. When Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck give talks that include information about slavery in New Jersey, people are shocked. The two Mercer County residents, who are collaborating on a book about a historic Hopewell Township cemetery where at least 10 African American Civil War veterans are buried, have given numerous presentations throughout the area on the subject. 

“We are greeted constantly with disbelief, not just from whites but from blacks, too,” said Ms. Mills. “I was at a meeting a month ago and I was talking to people about the book project. They said they had no idea. They thought slavery was only below the Mason/Dixon line.”

The records of the Stoutsburg Cemetery, which was bought from the Stout family in 1858 for the exclusive use as a burial ground for people of color, show that slavery was indeed in practice in New Jersey. The graveyard is on Province Line Road in Hopewell Township, bordering Montgomery.

Locally based Wild River Books is involved in the book project, which has received funding from The Bunbury Company. The authors plan for the volume to span more than three centuries of stories, contributions, and legacies of African Americans in the region since the Colonial days. While they have yet to come up with a formal title, the subtitle is “The African American Presence in Hopewell Valley and Surrounding Areas.”

Both Ms. Mills and Ms. Buck are descended from families that are longtime residents of the area. Ms. Mills has lived in Pennington borough all her life, in a house her family has occupied for over a century. Ms. Buck lives in her great grandparents’ house in Hopewell borough.

“The cemetery is something that has been passed down through families for as long as I can remember,” said Ms. Mills. “It was a given that it was always where they’d be buried. My grandmother was raised in Stoutsburg and would always refer to it.”

A press release from Wild River Books quotes Ms. Mills further: “As the oldest granddaughter, I was the first to hear about what life was like on the mountain. Imagine my shock to learn that enslaved people were instrumental in building this region and contributed to their communities in every respect. They built churches and neighborhoods, served in wars dating back to the Revolution, and excelled in education, music, and the arts. We want to put faces with the stories because there are so many.”

Ms. Mills, who is retiring from her longtime job as director of the Mercer County Workforce Development Board, became secretary of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association after the post was passed down from her uncle some 35 years ago. Ms. Buck, who is the church clerk for Second Calvary Baptist Church just up the street from her home, is assistant secretary for the cemetery association. Her husband, John, is president.

The book isn’t the only project geared toward enlightening the public about this aspect of history. In partnership with the Sourland Conservancy, Ms. Buck and Ms. Mills are also involved in establishing an African American history museum in the old Mt. Zion AME Church in Skillman. A gospel brunch fundraiser on February 27 is already at capacity. “This is an ongoing project. The brunch is sold out, but it still needs funding,” Ms. Buck said. “It will be the only museum of African American history in central Jersey.”

The book project began in 2003 when the friends heard some disturbing news. “On Rock Road headed into Lambertville, someone was going to put a driveway through a burial ground of slaves that was not properly marked,” Ms. Buck said. “We realized African American cemeteries are sporadically placed through the Hopewell Valley. They can be in someone’s yard. We started to think about how we could help.”

Information they have read on line says the Stoutsburg Cemetery has 160 markers, but there are several that have sunk below the surface and have been located through radar. Soldiers buried in the graveyard were in the 127th Colored Infantry. “They were in very significant battles,” Ms. Mills said. “A few were at Appomattox. All of them trained at Camp William Penn, the only training ground for African Americans.”

Once their research revealed the cemetery’s 10 Civil War veterans, the colleagues began to find facts leading back to their own families. They started going to different lectures to find out more. One talk they attended was by Marion Lane, an African American member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, at the David Library in Bucks County, Pa. “We asked her to present at our Memorial Day service,” said Ms. Mills. “She encouraged us. She said, ‘You need to understand who the people are who are buried here.’”

Ms. Buck introduced herself to historian Henry Louis Gates (host of the PBS television show “Finding Your Roots”) when he gave a talk at Princeton Public Library a few years ago. “We’re hoping he’ll reach out to us,” she said. “We have been in touch.”

The book represents a decade of research. The authors are hoping to have it published by 2017, but there is a lot to cover. “Every time we think we’re done with our research, something else pops up,” commented Ms. Buck.

“The reason we’re writing it is so that people will realize African American history is American history,” Ms. Mills said. “It needs to go beyond the month of February [Black History Month]. Most people don’t have a clue. We need to include it. Slavery is the worst part of American history. It’s uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean you don’t talk about it. That doesn’t mean you sanitize it. We have to put it out there.”