April 13, 2022

Preservation of Historic Property Is Result of Collaborative Purchase

TRUE STORY: The historic farmstead that was home to the True family in Skillman will be the new headquarters of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum and Sourland Conservancy.

By Anne Levin

A property originally owned by an African American Union army veteran after the Civil War has been saved by a partnership of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) and Sourland Conservancy.

The two nonprofits have purchased the True family farmstead in Skillman, which not only preserves the historic site, but will also provide permanent office space for both organizations.

“Everything will be together,” said Kariina Rand of Sourland Conservancy. “We’ve never really had a proper home accessible to the public.”

Spencer True was a descendant of the former slave Friday Truehart, who had gained his freedom in 1819 and became an early African American landowner in the Sourland region. Spencer and his wife, Corinda, lived on the farmstead, which originally included the land on which the National Historic Register-listed Mt. Zion AME Church stands today. The church is now home to the museum.

Descendants of the True family sold the adjoining farmstead to the Normile family in 1994. “We heard the family might be moving, and we were able to make the purchase,” said Rand. “We had a relationship with them already. It was very fortuitous timing, just as they were considering putting it on the market.”

By recombining the two parcels, the True family story comes full circle. “It is a beautiful thing to be able to reclaim the land and have it in perpetuity,” Rand said.

In a press release about the sale, SSAAM advisory board member Patricia Payne, a descendant of the Trueheart and True families, recalled visiting her grandparents on the family farmstead. There was a time when she knew every inch of the landscape of trees, ponds, and trails that surrounded the property.

“We grew up on a five-acre farm,” she said. “We had plenty of gardens. They raised peaches and apples and sold greens from the garden. They certainly had huge collards, and greens and tomatoes, and whatever else they grew, and my father’s favorite, Jersey white corn. He loved Jersey white corn. They literally trucked all these green groceries down to Trenton. It was a big deal to come all the way from Hopewell/Skillman and truck it down to Trenton.”

The True family has lived in central New Jersey for five generations, beginning when Friday Truehart’s enslaver brought him to Hopewell from South Carolina. Closely connected to the tight-knit African American community that lived on and around Hollow Road in Skillman, the Trues remained on the mountain and in the Hopewell Valley until Payne and her cousins dispersed to go to college and live elsewhere.

The proposed Sourland Education and Exhibit Center will sit on the parcel of land adjacent to the museum and the farmstead. Grants from the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission and New Jersey Historic Trust have funded the development of a master plan for the center, which will welcome school groups and host public programming. A capital campaign to build the center and restore the church and farmstead is currently underway.

“Until recently I, like many others, had no idea that there was a substantial African American presence in the Sourland Mountain and Hopewell Valley region,” said Donnetta Johnson, SSAAM’s executive director. “Nor did I know that the Sourland Conservancy was founded by an African American resident of the mountain named Robert Garrett, who organized a group of residents concerned with protecting the area from overbuilding.”

John Buck, SSAAM president, said evidence of the families, their homesteads, and their histories has all but disappeared. “People who have moved into the area over the past 35 years have no idea of the culture and contributions of these families who worked hard to develop the unique character and economy of the region with back-breaking farming, and the strong cultural bonds of family and camaraderie of neighbors that was a key feature of life on the mountain and in the Hopewell Valley,” he said.

The conservancy played a key role in the preservation of the Mt. Zion AME Church and the formation of the SSAAM. “Combining our environmental work with the history of the African American presence is such an impactful collaboration,” said Rand. “To be next to them, day in and day out — so many things can come from that partnership.”