The joyful noise that rang through the halls of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church is something one might expect from church on a Sunday morning. On Saturday February 27, however, there was something else being celebrated. Voices were lifted in song at the Gospel Brunch Benefit Fundraiser for the future first African American museum in New Jersey.
The celebration was lead by life-long Hopewell Valley residents, Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, of the Stoutsburg Cemetery, which has served as a burial ground for African American residents and veterans primarily from Hopewell, Pennington, Montgomery and East Amwell Townships from the early 1800’s. The event was co-hosted by the Sourland Conservancy, a non-profit organization that serves to preserve the ecological integrity, historic resources and special character of the Sourland Mountain region, including the important history of African Americans in the Sourlands and the Hopewell Valley.
The church hall was full of residents from all over New Jersey who came to encourage, support and donate to this future museum that will be located just outside Hopewell Borough, in Skillman NJ, at the historic Mt. Zion AME Church.
I sat at a table with three spirited women, Joyce, Susan and Karen who marveled at the mixture of people while we enjoyed a buffet-style brunch of turkey, ham, cornbread and more. Karen looked around silently pleased and leaned over to me, “I have lived in Hopewell for 15 years and this is the most diverse crowd I have ever seen at any event.”
After most were settled with their food, Rev. Gregory Smith led those gathered in singing the negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” Those familiar with the words, and even those we weren’t, all seemed visibly touched by both the lyrics and the melody.
Rev. Smith went on to remind us of the importance of remembering the past and those who laid the foundations that we all are fortunate to stand upon. The crowd sang negro spirituals like, “Down by the Riverside” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” along with the Gospel Choir of the Bethel AME Church of Pennington, which this year is celebrating their bicentennial.
As one portion of the music-heavy celebration died down, Elaine Buck, along with Beverly Mills spoke passionately of the contributions of African American to the rich history that many of us are now discovering for the first time. Both women, along with Elaine’s husband, John Buck (all trustees of the Stoutsburg Cemetery), shared with the crowd that much of the history of Hopewell Valley’s black citizenry, which makes up less than 1% of the population, is largely unknown and ignored.
“The African Americans that have been here for generations all came from somewhere and we wanted to know where, why and what brought them to Hopewell,” said Buck afterwards. “The truth is that slavery was what brought so many of them to this area and, to my surprise, many people in the audience were shocked because they didn’t know that slavery was ever in New Jersey.”
Buck went on to explain that, apart from those whose relatives were born in slavery and stayed in the area after slavery was outlawed, some were brought to the area as slaves, and still many more migrated north from the oppressive vestiges of the the post-Civil War south.
“My husband’s grandfather worked as a basket maker, one of the many African American’s who made peach baskets for the Wyckoff Peach Orchard,” Buck explained. More stories were quickly shared, leaving those gathered awe struck of what they didn’t know and possibly ashamed of what they may have assumed.
Buck and Mills went on to acknowledge partners who had helped make this event possible. Caroline Katmann of the Sourland Conservancy waved enthusiastically from the back, as the contribution of the Conservancy was graciously recounted, along with others including Kate McGuire who did a lot of investigating with Mills and Buck.
Applause resounded as the musical strains again reverberated within and undoubtedly outside the walls of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church. Bertha Morgan sang “Soon I Will be Done with The Troubles of This World” and Eric Gambrell shared three additional selections as well as directed the choir. Mrs. Delia Diggs, who ministers alongside her husband, Rev. Michael Diggs, Jr., at Hopewell’s Second Calvary Baptist Church in Hopewell, silenced the crowd when she sang “Order My Steps.”
As the event wound down, I looked around and saw many faces who were obviously still pondering the history that was being shared for the first time. As musicians left the stage, John Buck was presented with an actual peach basket by Anne Schiere, one of the only baskets left from those made by African American at the Wyckoff Orchard. As Buck held the basket, many teary eyes and over-filled hearts looked on.
With the final prayer and amen, people gathered their coats, thanked their table mates with parting words and shook hands with strangers amid laughter and gratitude. After, I was able to steal a few moments with Beverly Mills, and I asked her what she was feeling.
“I just stood back and drank it all in,” she sighed, looking off, satisfied, into a distant somewhere. “People seemed vested in this endeavor, the museum and the cemetery. They understood its importance, not only to African Americans here in Hopewell Valley, but to themselves. They were genuinely interested in supporting this effort.” She spoke more about the history they had uncovered so far and about how it changed how she saw her past and present — that African Americans are not extras or bit players in the stories of American History — they are not footnotes to someone else’s great saga.
“Those people in that cemetery have rich, important stories,” continued Mills. “The truths of those stories, the angst, the struggles and the triumphs belong to all of us. The stories of those African Americans laying in that ground need to be told.”