To build a driveway, you need pressure. Smack down the dirt with a plate compactor that presses steel 5,000 times a minute into the ground. Roll over it with a dump truck carrying 72,000 pounds. Lay the binder and hot asphalt, and press its components together with a steam roller. Smother and repurpose the earth underneath so a car can drive to a door.
But what if that earth had another purpose? What if that purpose, long ago, was for burying people? What if those people had children, who had children, who had children, who are alive today, and whose ancestry is still a mystery to them, and for whom it might remain a mystery should the bodies of their ancestors be compacted, rolled over, steamrolled, paved and driven over?
Turns out, the key to stopping a driveway from being built is, also, pressure.
A case in point: Over a decade ago, a Hunterdon County resident phoned Elaine Buck, who was the assistant secretary of the Stoutsburg Cemetery, a 300-plus-year-old African American cemetery in Hopewell, that a developer was planning to build a driveway on a property in Hunterdon County that he thought to be an African American burial ground.
Buck and Stoutsburg Cemetery Association (SCA) secretary Beverly Mills got to work. They called the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which told them to call the state attorney general, who told them to call the press and shine a light on the issue, “because it was not and still isn’t uncommon for African American and Native American graveyards to be desecrated, but it is illegal,” Buck says.
They called the Trenton Times, and, eventually, Buck and the reporter went to the property to see for themselves. There was a knocked-over memorial and someone had been planting daffodil bulbs on the spot. There were noticeable marks in the ground, which the contractor would later claim to be perc test holes, which are used to determine if septic systems can be placed on a property. Community members even provided last names for those buried at the spot; last names which still show up on Census counting and voting records today.
The story ran in the Sunday Trenton Times, Buck and her husband (John, president of the SCA) on the front page. They got a threatening letter from the contactor’s team, Buck says: Don’t trespass on the property again, or you’ll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Then, another letter: Prove it’s a burial ground. Bring an archeologist.
Do you know any archeologists? I don’t. Buck didn’t. Then, the next day, she saw a story in the paper about one. She knew him from church.
“He and my husband and I went back up to the property kind of dressed in camouflage, and when we saw a car go by, we’d hide behind the trees,” Buck says. “He was the one who said they were not perc test holes; they were indicative of sunken graves.”
A friend at the New Jersey Archives supplied a final piece of evidence—the will of Elnathan Stevenson, who originally owned the lot, and who expressed in his will his desire to keep the land a burial ground.
At last, the contractor acquiesced, moving the driveway to another part of the property. All that trouble for such a simple fix? Turns out, all that trouble inspired Buck and Mills to take a journey through local history, which would illuminate the lives of black people in the Hopewell Valley; to save their history from being paved over, so to speak.
“All of this is starting to make us wonder,” Buck says. “Let’s find out who’s buried in the Stoutsburg Cemetery, which is maybe 10 miles from this burial we’re talking about, in Hopewell Township.”
What Mills and Buck found when they looked in the Stoutsburg Cemetery was a revelation.
“Were you able to find the stories of people buried there?” I asked Mills.
“Yeah, my relatives.”
In the context of today’s politics, where state legislatures are bowing to pressure from self-victimized white folks and banning Critical Race Theory (CRT), or at least what they purport, or maybe fear, it to be, it’s worthwhile to take a step back. While CRT opponents seek to put a wholesale stop to the inclusion of a more truthful version of our communal history in public education—and how that version is presented, and when, can certainly be debated by those of disparate views in good faith—we can look inward to our personal histories to see an imbalance.
Watch an episode of the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots that features a black guest and you’re bound to hear host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tell them it’s impossible to trace their lineage farther back than a couple generations. That’s not the same experience for white folks, who have access to better records of their ancestors.
“It’s very difficult because of the way the African American story has been omitted and largely erased from history,” says Mills.
In discovering the history of people buried at the Stoutsburg Cemetery—which is detailed in Mills’ and Buck’s book, If these Stones Could Talk, about which they’ll give a talk on Zoom via the Community College of Morris on Feb. 22—they had to call on a number of organizations (libraries, historical societies, etc.) to track down hard-to-find documents.
They were looking, “wherever we could find people who were willing to help us and believe in our story,” Mills says. “You weren’t sure where you were going to go, because you’d find a first name, you’d have to kind of back track—well, what white family owned this person, let’s see if we can find by looking into their records if there’s any mention about the life of this person or when they were freed or whatever the circumstances may be. You always have to look at the white families.”
And they had to balance that work with their personal lives; time to which they could dedicate themselves because it was part of their professional work and they were writing a book on it. Consider how daunting the task would be for an average black person to do this work, as opposed to the standard white experience of having records mailed to you in a promotional email by Ancestry.com.
“We were just regular women with families, with husbands and kids and grandkids,” Mills says. “You spend your day researching, just looking for a needle in a haystack, literally, and pouring your heart and soul into it, just exhausted, but you still have to go home and make your meatloaf. … It’s been a struggle.”
Hours upon hours were spent tracking down, among other documents, manumission papers—documents that legally freed enslaved people. Combing through those that existed, Buck says she saw names of friends, neighbors… even her own. And, Frost Blackwell. He was a relative of Mills, who the pair learned was enslaved in the late 18th century in Hopewell by the wealthy farmer Andrew Blackwell, and was buried in the Stoutsburg Cemetery. Some of Blackwell’s descendants live in the area still; in fact, impossibly (but, not really) Mills is close with them.
But Blackwell’s documented existence before the 1800s was unique, as were records of his wife, Nancy Banvakter, and their son, Samuel, whom documents showed Frost purchased to gain their freedom. Mills and Buck went to the Hunterdon County Courthouse, finally, where a staffer tried to track down the book in which his manumission papers were printed, fruitlessly at first, before heading into the basement and finding the minutes from Frost’s manumission hearing.
Mills said she had no inclination her family’s presence in the U.S. went back that far; no reason or evidence or family story to believe that. Instead, it took months upon months of researching to find it.
“Finding this information that my family goes as far back as the founding families…. my family was here before America was America. It’s amazing,” Mills says.
But, there was more; an even unlikelier find. At the time Frost Blackwell was living in Hopewell, another relative of Mills was in Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Oliver Hart, a prestigious pastor, was outspoken about his support of the American cause, and eventually had to leave—to Hopewell once the British landed. He brought with him his second wife and an enslaved boy, Friday—Mill’s fourth great-grandfather. Years after Hart died, a transcribed version of his diary was found in Charleston, which documented not only Friday’s existence, but his birthday, his mother’s name, and the date and amount Hart paid to buy them.
“I feel extremely grateful,” says MIlls about having this information. “I’m thinking of all the millions of African Americans who cannot even touch that kind of information and go back that far. I have a fifth great-grandmother and her name was Dina. And she had a son, Friday; they were bought together by this pastor, a man of the cause. Who would have known?”
Buck says she’s felt serendipity, or something higher, along every step of the way. Too many coincidences, too many good breaks to keep the journey of discovery moving forward through all the incomplete records, dead-ends and more.
“From the beginning, the first time we stepped on that burial ground, we said this is not a coincidence, this is a god-cidence,” Buck says. “Every piece of information that we find, we know that god is saying, ‘You know what, they need this, and I’m gonna make sure they get it.’ He makes sure that we get what we need. We’re working on a second book [Harmony and Hostility: A View from Sourland Mountain], and he’s still making sure we get information.”
Like all good historians, Mills’ and Buck’s work uncovering the past is done with an eye toward the future. That means using lessons from this past episode of their lives, and the work they did in it, to change the way future generations understand history. And, to ensure that past wrongs—or near-wrongs—are not repeated.
“It might have been commonplace for you to run overtop black people and put a driveway, because I’m telling you that happens all over this country,” Buck says. “They put condos on top of burials. It was commonplace, but it’s not commonplace anymore: you’re on check.”
But, in this age of division stoked by opportunistic politicians and media outlets, justice feels elusive. If videotaped evidence is not enough—as in the juxtaposed examples of the Jan. 6 insurrection and George Floyd’s murder—to silence critics, how can we hope for systemic change?
“You have events like Jan. 6, we all saw what happened,” Buck says. “It’s televised. It’s like that old song, that the revolution will be televised. And right now looking at Jan. 6 as a black person, that has black sons and hearing what they said after watching that all day and the pass that the white people got knowing that if you were black you wouldn’t have made it three steps before you were bullet-ridden. Black men and women. It’s not a good place for us to be. It encourages almost a hate for one another to know that, OK that happened and a year later we’re talking about it and what do we see? Alright, people got arrested or whatever. It puts a sour taste in our mouths as black people to know this is the way America is for black people.”
But maybe the tide is changing. The arc of the universe, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., bends toward justice; and it bends, rather than takes a straight course, because of the same forces fueling the division in our country today. Mills is quick to point out that there are a lot of white people “who are interested in being allies, or who are interested in being educated, or who are intereted in arming themselves with the most knowledge.
“There’s plenty of white people out there who are eager and willing and want to be change agents and to learn a different way of thinking,” she continues. “As for those who are more comfortable staying rooted in ignorance … you’re doing so much damage, so much damage. And all these omissions, all the half-truths, all these lies, all this sanitizing the black narrative. It’s a breadtrail that has led up to this day.”
If These Stones Could Talk, and the event on Feb. 22, is not only an opportunity to hear from these two esteemed historians, but to begin to understand the history of slavery, and the rich history of black people, in New Jersey; which, if you went to public school here, you know is insufficient.
“We want people to think more critically about their own way of thinking, because you have people who say everybody’s equal and everybody gets the same benefits, and when you read the book, you’ll find out, nope, not true,” Buck says.
Adds Mills, “If these discussions make you uncomfortable, you need to look inward into your own life.”
‘If These Stones Could Talk,’ with Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, on Zoom on Tuesday, Feb. 22, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. To participate in the event, email email@example.com for the Zoom link. Buy the book here.