The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) and Sourland Conservancy have partnered to purchase and save the historic True family farmstead.
Located in Skillman, the property was originally owned by a Black Union army veteran who worked as a farmer after the Civil War. In 1891, after his death, his wife Corinda married Spencer True, a descendant of the former slave Friday Truehart; Truehart had gained his freedom in 1819 and became an early African American landowner in the Sourland Region. Spencer and Corinda True made their home on the farmstead, which originally included the land on which the National Historic Register-listed Mt. Zion AME Church stands today. Spencer and Corinda donated the land for the church in 1899 after the original church, built around 1866 on the Sourland Mountain, burned down. Mt. Zion AME Church welcomed its African American congregants until 2005, and now serves as the home of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum.
SSAAM advisory board member Patricia Payne, a descendant of Friday Truehart and Spencer True, grew up visiting her grandparents on the family farmstead. There was a time, she recalls, that she knew every inch of the landscape of trees, ponds, and trails that surrounded the property.
“We grew up on a five-acre farm,” Payne recalled, referring to the True family farmstead. “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.”
“For generations, my family was all about central NJ,” Payne said. 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.
Descendants of the True family sold the adjoining farmstead to the Normile family in 1994. With the recent purchase of the farmstead and recombining of the parcels, the True family story has come full circle.
Fulfilling an Educational Mission
Purchasing the True Farmstead will enable the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) to tell the story of the unique culture, experiences, and contributions of the African American community of the Sourland Mountain Region.
“Evidence of these families, their homesteads, their histories and their contributions have all but disappeared,” said John Buck, SSAAM President. “People who have moved into the area over the past thirty-five 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.”
According to Elaine Buck, author and SSAAM co-founder: “Anyone with a long family history in this area will tell you how tightly connected and interdependent the families were and how they helped one another survive and thrive through adverse times.”
Elaine Buck and her writing partner Beverly Mills, also a SSAAM co-founder, have conducted extensive research into the history of African Americans in the Sourland region. Their first book, If These Stones Could Talk, was published in 2018. They are currently co-authoring a follow-up volume, Harmony and Hostility: A View from the Mountain, due out this year.
Preserving a Significant Site
SSAAM and the Sourland Conservancy have partnered to preserve the spectacular beauty of the Sourland region through land and ecological preservation, while also sharing the historical and cultural narratives of the mountain and its inhabitants with the wider community. This will be the core function of the proposed Sourland Education & Exhibit Center that will sit on the parcel of land adjacent to the museum and the recently acquired True farmstead. Grants from the Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission and New Jersey Historic Trust have funded the development of a master site plan for the Sourland Center, which will welcome school groups as well as host educational talks, art exhibits, and other public programming. The historic True farmhouse will house the two organizations’ offices.
Donnetta Johnson, who became SSAAM’s Executive Director in October 2021, recognized that the history of this region may be unfamiliar to many New Jersey residents. “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,” she said. “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.”
While the name of Garrett’s organization would later change from the Sourland Regional Citizen’s Planning Council to the Sourland Conservancy, its mission would grow stronger, and the Conservancy would become an essential partner in SSAAM’s creation.
“I’ve learned a lot very quickly,” Johnson said. “What I know now, and am incredibly proud of, is that these two amazing organizations are working hand in hand on a mission that is so brilliant and makes such incredible sense that it is mind-blowing.”
“Sourland Conservancy is proud to have played an important role in the preservation of the Mt. Zion AME Church and formation of SSAAM, and is now very excited that the True farmstead joins the land co-owned by the Conservancy and SSAAM on Hollow Road in Skillman,” said Dante DiPirro, President of Sourland Conservancy. “In terms of the ecology, visitors will be able to get to know the Sourlands better by learning about the forest, water, animals, birds, and other resources. We want visitors to come to enjoy a rich and enjoyable experience and leave with a better understanding of the region and a new-found passion for enjoying, cherishing and protecting it.”
These preservation efforts were able to come together thanks to many different groups’ support, including the expertise and advice of Jay Watson, co-executive director and head of the land protection program at NJ Conservation.
“Sadly, there are very few historic sites in our great state dedicated to telling the story of the African American presence, experience and contributions throughout history,” said Watson. “Having an opportunity to play a role in assembling this land with this unique partnership makes us very proud and thankful indeed.”
A capital campaign to build the center and restore the church and the farmstead is underway for 2022, and Johnson believes that generous individual donors are the key to the success of this campaign.
“By sharing stories from our unique past, current residents can have a greater appreciation of how our community came to be. The ecology and environmental landscape of our region that supported farming and other industries add interesting subplots to our history.” She added “We can build stronger relationships and celebrate our community and shared future by understanding each other’s unique cultural perspectives, relationship to the land, and our difficult and powerful shared history.”
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