In the brief time since Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills published If These Stones Could Talk, a groundbreaking book about the African American community in the Hopewell Valley, the duo have uncovered so much additional information that they just finished the manuscript for a second book.
Harmony and Hostility: A View from Sourland Mountain, expected to be published later this year, will offer a deeper dive into the relationships between the founding Black and white communities of Hopewell and Pennington – including some of the families mentioned in the first book.
“We wanted to do a broader overview of the historical context behind the region,” explained Mills, who said the book draws on the wills of white families and oral histories of longtime residents. The records of African American founding families are difficult to uncover, but the wills and other documents of white families that mention the names of enslaved people they owned have helped the authors uncover previously unknown information about Black families living in this region since before the Revolutionary War.
One of the reasons for the second book is that so many people came forward with documents and information about their ancestors once If These Stones Could Talk came out, Mills explained.
“After the release of the book, we started to get white people that would reach out to us who were either familiar with the area or had lived in the area and since moved away,” she said, adding that they shared documents and possessions of their ancestors. “They actually felt constrained to talk about their embarrassment and their humiliation over certain things… whether their families were former enslavers or their family members were involved with the KKK.”
Buck and Mills asked those families if they would be open to being interviewed for a second book – and they all said “yes”. In anticipation of the upcoming release, MercerMe sat down with Buck and Mills to learn more about their research and findings.
MM: You’ve been busy since your first book came out in 2018, giving frequent interviews, overseeing the Stoutsburg Cemetery and the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, and speaking to local schools about this history. How did you find time to do the research for a second book?
Buck: That’s a good question! Sometimes when we refer back to our book for information, we look at it and say, ‘When did we even find the time to write it?’ We’re always encouraged by people who appreciate what we have done, because we’ve been so busy doing it that we really didn’t see the depth of the work we have done.
Mills: It’s a blur!
Buck: We encourage people from all nationalities to learn your family history. If you have parents or grandparents that are still living or older people in your family, ask questions, because you’ll be surprised what you find out.
MM: I was struck while reading the book that you were not only uncovering some difficult truths about this region’s history, but also information about your own ancestors and what they went through. In this second book, as you dive into the history of the white founding families of this region, how do you lean into the love rather than the feelings of anger when you read some of these historical documents?
Mills: It’s not that we don’t have anger about our past. You’d have to be inhuman not to feel that injustice. But I think we have to keep our focus on educating people, especially in these times of debate about what can and cannot be told. It’s a very difficult topic to speak about, but that’s the only way you learn and heal.
Buck: Beverly and I have gotten to a point sometimes in our research when we find things out that, we literally start crying and we have to stop. It’s so sad that our ancestors went through this. It’s also empowering. Yesterday, we did a Wordle with third graders and we showed them a presentation about how we got here. We showed them the slave ships and just broke it down to today. And we asked them to use words that would empower us to keep going and keep researching and they came up with some good words. Pride was one. We’re very proud of our ancestors, how they survived and how they paved the way for us.
MM: As you’ve worked on this second book, have you found the descendants of white families to be open and forthcoming about the role of their ancestors?
Mills: Most of the white descendants that reached out to us had a myriad of feelings attached to their past and family history, whether it was shame or embarrassment or white guilt. But you can’t get stuck on what happened decades before with your ancestors. The only thing you can do is learn from it and move on. Either you’re going to stay stuck in your feelings of guilt and remorse, or you’re going to do something to be a change agent. It’s your responsibility how you’re going to contribute now to the community. What’s past is past but that doesn’t mean the past is forgotten.
Buck: Beverly and I both live in the same community that we grew up in, so we still have friends from school. Our friends have apologized for things that happened to us when we were younger because of their family members. I’m still friends with somebody whose mother was mortified that her daughter brought me home from school when I was in second or third grade. Her mother came in and found me in her house and kicked me out right away. There has to be some forgiveness to move forward, because I’m still friends with the daughter.
MM: Hopewell Township just announced that they will be naming some streets after prominent African American residents of this area, which is due in large part to the information you have uncovered about those individuals. How do you feel about that?
Buck: We’re thrilled. Some of these people, all we know is their name or just a tiny tidbit of information about them. This is a way to memorialize and remember them. Most of the names we picked, those are the founding Black families. Just like the white families, they go all the way back to colonial times here in this region.
Mills: We’re in a region where America began. So you’re talking about people that were right here working alongside the white people, whether they were enslaved or free, to build what we have today. These people have just been recognized, in some instances a couple hundred years later, which to me is just amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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