The Sourland Conservancy is pleased to announce that it has received a Somerset County Historic Preservation Grant in the amount of $67,688 to support the creation of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum – the first African-American museum in central New Jersey.
The museum will be housed in the historic Mount Zion AME church. The site of the original church was on Mount Zion Road on the Sourland Mountain in Hopewell Township. The church was established sometime before 1850 by members of the Sourland Mountain African American community. At that time, the peach orchards provided the primary source of income for the congregants. When the peach blight struck and took their livelihood, the parishioners moved to Skillman to find work. When they moved, they took the church with them. They disassembled the church, loaded into horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its current location on Hollow Road, rebuilt the structure, and resumed worship there. Over the years, attendance declined and the church finally closed its doors. Though unused for several years, the building and its contents have remained intact.
The Sourland Conservancy first became involved with this historic structure in 2012 and conducted a special fund drive to repair and paint the vacant church, completing the work in March 2012. The Montgomery Township Landmarks Commission provided a grant to pay for the materials needed for the repairs.
Local residents, Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, have long dreamed of converting the building into an African-American museum. Ms. Mills and Ms. Buck are members of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association, an African-American cemetery located on Province Line Road in Hopewell Township which serves as the final resting place for Hopewell Valley African-Americans including veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Ms. Mills and Ms. Buck have strong family ties to the cemetery and history of the region. They are currently working with Wild River Publishing in Lambertville to write a book about the history of African-Americans in the region.
In 2014, the Sourland Conservancy and the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association decided to partner on the project to make their museum dream a reality. Members of the two organizations worked together to begin to formulate a plan, generate support, and establish a Museum board of trustees. The Museum was awarded its own official nonprofit status in June. Donations are tax deductible.
The partners have held two fundraisers this year: a gospel brunch in February at the Hopewell Presbyterian Church and historic camp meeting revival reenactment at Skillman Park in September. These events were very successful in bringing the community together to achieving their fundraising goals and celebrate the spirit of the project.
Though it will be many months before the Museum opens its doors, many volunteers have already selflessly offered their time and talents to ensure the Museum’s success. Musicians, speakers, carpenters, historians, high school students and more have rolled up their sleeves to delve into historic research, make maps, plan events, entertain, cook, design programs, set up tents, tables and chairs, and much more.
Area businesses and organizations have generously contributed, as well. An old tree that was leaning precariously over the structure was removed thanks to a generous Pennington Day Grant and Wells Tree & Landscape. The Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ has provided advice, expertise and display cases. Renowned sculptor, Charles McCollough, created an original sculpture of a family for the museum. This sculpture will be displayed to symbolize the hope of the families that lived here. This concept is inspired by the work at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. The Hopewell Presbyterian Church and its members have offered support, hosted the Gospel Brunch, and sewed wildly popular “Church Lady Aprons” as a fundraiser.
The museum is planning to include several different types of exhibits including original objects and documents, interactive exhibits, films and recordings of local residents, demonstrations and live performances. The board is currently seeking documents, pictures and artifacts that would be of particular interest to donate or loan to the museum. Contributors will be acknowledged with a plaque next to the object. For more information, please email [email protected]
Somerset County Historic Preservation Grant funds will be used to fund activities that will support the museum’s creation including: writing architectural and structural reports for the church building and a vision planning report for the future use and enjoyment of the site, placing a roadside interpretive sign outside the museum, working on the grounds and removing a dilapidated outbuilding and shed. In addition, the partners will prepare a New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places Nomination.
For more information about the project, visit www.sourland.org, www.stoutsburgcemetery.org or follow the museum on Facebook www.facebook.com/stoutsburgsourlandafricanamericanmuseum.