February is Black History Month and the Hopewell Valley is lucky to have two opportunities to learn about a local Black ancestor, Jacob Francis, from historian William “Larry” Kidder. The first is February 3 at 7pm via Internet co-sponsored by Hopewell Valley Historical Society, The Hopewell Museum and the Hopewell Branch of the Mercer County Library. In addition to the virtual online presentation, you also can reserve a seat in the Community Room at the Hopewell Branch Library to view a livestream broadcast of the program. Register here. To reserve a seat at the Hopewell Branch, please call 609.737.2610 or email email@example.com.
Additionally, the Pennsylvania Washington Crossing Park Visitors Center in sponsoring an in person talk February 13 at 1:30pm. Register here.
Born in Amwell Township to a free Black mother, Jacob Francis lived his 82-year life in a world of revolutionary change. He became caught up in the rising tide of revolution in the 1760s and 70s and served fourteen months in the 16th Continental Army regiment, including at the Battle of Trenton, and then in the Third Hunterdon County militia regiment for over six years. The story of Jacob Francis and his family provides an inside view of life in New Jersey in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the revolutionary changes affecting the lives of both free and enslaved Black people.
Kidder recently told MercerMe that he first learned of Jacob Francis when researching his book on the First Hunterdon militia – A People Harassed and Exhausted. He said he was intrigued by his story and wanted to know more about him.
“He did not really fit into my story on the First Hunterdon because he was actually in the Third Hunterdon, which was made up of men from Amwell Township. At that time, Amwell was huge and had its own regiment,” Kidder explained. “I was also intrigued because there were so few men from New Jersey who fought at the battle of Trenton. The fact that he was a free Black man made him even more unique. I also wanted to find out more about him because he was a free Black man and most of the stories from that time are about enslaved Black people. Jacob was born free.”
“The story of Black life in New Jersey in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century was more complex than just slavery. A man like Jacob Francis had to endure many obstacles in life that related to racism – both in terms of laws and social interactions. Jacob Francis was able to deal with those obstacles to provide a quality life for himself and his family. His life constantly intersected with slavery. He knew many enslaved people and married one of them. He set her free after purchasing her at the time of their wedding. (Much more of that story in the book.) Jacob and his family became very involved in the movement to abolish slavery and one of his sons worked actively with and was a friend of Frederick Douglass.”
“I felt his story was important because it shed light on the lives of free Black people in the time of slavery and is also just a great story of individual human persistence in life and the need to overcome obstacles that we cannot control. The story will also make readers more aware of the role of enslavement in the history of New Jersey, much more than commonly thought, and the elements of racism that unfortunately continue to this day.”
Kidder is a retired history teacher who taught for 40 years, including 32 years at The Hun School of Princeton. He is a graduate of Allegheny College (BA 1967, MS 1969) and served four years in the US Navy. He has been a volunteer historian and historical interpreter for the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell for more than 30 years and is a member of the board of the Princeton Battlefield Society where he focuses on educational programs and battlefield tours. He is a past president of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society and has served on the board for many years. The author of two books on rural New Jersey history and three on aspects of has also been a presenter at conferences on the American Revolution in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York. For more of Kidder’s projects and books, visit his website, wlkidderhistorian.com.
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