President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every US president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.
In the fifty years prior, since 1926, “Negro History Week” began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora and was dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. The second week of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Yet, even with a formal designation, many Americans remain uninformed of both African history and the stressors present for Black Americans even to this day. While we cannot address a topic of that magnitude in this short column, we can touch on the significance of Black History Month in the Hopewell Valley.
Renata Barnes, Outdoor Equity Alliance coordinator, provided this input: “Having grown up in Hopewell Valley, I was unaware of the African-American history that resided here. A silent, silken thread of many strands, woven into the tapestry of area history but somehow missed by many, and perhaps dismissed by many more. This very strand has recently caught the light and that light has illuminated more than just the past but our present and hopefully, our future.
“In my current position as Outdoor Equity Alliance Coordinator, I have been able to look at the richness of the Hopewell Valley area anew. Considering all the historical pieces that have contributed to said richness, I began to wonder about the part people of African descent have played in Hopewell and nationally.
“The Valley is not alone in the historical oversights that blot out the contribution of people of African descent. The consequence of viewing African-American history from a White European perspective is the tendency to relegate an entire group of people and their experiences to bit players or uncredited extras with inconsequential storylines. In truth, our own Sourland Mountains are soaked in the tears, sweat, and hopes of first-generation slaves as their descendants drive the roads that began as trails beaten back by their ancestors.
“The voices of those long dead residents lying beneath weathered and almost forgotten gravemarkers have been heard in recent years. The Stoutsburg Sourland African-American Museum, housed in the historic Mt. Zion AME Church in Skillman stands as a testament to local residents whose stories and contributions do not sit in the memory of anyone living today.
“These stories continue to point out the inequities that lie in our past, bleeding into our present. We tell African-American history both locally and nationally, to shine a light on omitted truths in hopes of healing the lingering deep wounds of our collective past. Part of the OEA mission is to address some of these inequities, specifically in the area of access to open spaces and opportunities in the environmental sector.”
“Hopewell Valley is addressing its forgotten past, giving it a platform, and allowing it to inform our present. Students in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District learn a more complete history of the African American experience in Hopewell Valley from local historians Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills. Their book, “If These Stones Could Talk”, which beautifully lays out the contribution of people of African descent in Hopewell Valley, was birthed from these presentations both in our area and statewide.
“This past summer, Governor Murphy officially recognized Juneteenth as a statewide holiday. Celebrated throughout the African-American community for more than a century, it commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Africans in Galveston Texas, who received the news of their freedom two and a half years after the national emancipation proclamation was issued. The OEA is planning a Juneteenth celebration at a local park or preserve to commemorate the contributions of Black New Jerseyans. Currently, African-American history is treated separately and segregated from mainstream dialogues. By drawing attention to this holiday, we hope to weave African-American history and experience into an understanding that every American, and Hopewellian, should proudly embrace as simply American history.”
Submitted by Lisa Wolff, Executive Director of the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS) and Renata Barnes, Coordinator of Outdoor Equity Alliance
FoHVOS is an accredited nonprofit land trust dedicated to conserving the Valley’s character by collaborating with the community to preserve land, protect natural resources, and inspire a new generation of conservation. Since its inception, FoHVOS has preserved more than 7,500 acres of land and inspired thousands of partners and volunteers.
The Outdoor Equity Alliance is a project of FoHVOS. Its mission is to create experiences and opportunities that attract and inspire people of all ages, ethnicities, and income levels to enjoy nature and the outdoors.
In the featured photo, students from the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and Boys & Girls Club of Mercer County participate in a FoHVOS internship known as “Building Conservation through Diversity & Teamwork”