New Jersey was built on slavery. Colonists were given land based on how many people they enslaved. State leaders—signers of the Declaration of Independence—enslaved people. Slave auctions were held from Perth Amboy to Camden. NJ built wealth selling products to Southern plantations, and during the Civil War, NJ supplied the Confederate Army with uniforms and battle gear.
“New Jersey was that last Northern state to attempt to abolish slavery, and it was probably the Northern state with the strongest sympathies toward the South,” says Linda Caldwell Epps, Ph.D. and CEO of 1804 Consultants, in the beginning of the NJ PBS documentary, The Price of Silence: The Forgotten Story of New Jersey’s Enslaved People.
Then, echoing the sentiments of many of us who attended NJ public schools, she says: “Never once did I, certainly in elementary school or high school, learn anything at all about the enslavement of people in this state.”
Thus was the impetus for filmmaker Ridgeley Hutchinson to create this two-part documentary that takes viewers from the state’s foundation, intractably entwined with slavery, to the inequities and societal ramifications that persist today. Hutchinson, who was executive director of the regional carpenters union for decades and for whom this is his first film, was inspired to take on this subject when he realized that not only is the history of slavery in NJ woefully absent from public education but that he knew people with direct ties to people who were enslaved here.
“I was shocked to learn of the existence and prevalence of slavery, and that these friends of mine were direct descendants. It occurred to me what it must’ve been like for me to hang out with friends and not have anyone even acknowledge this or learn it,” Hutchinson says.
Those friends include Beverly Mills, who, with Elaine Buck, runs the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association, which oversees a 300-year-old African American cemetery in Hopewell. In the film, Mills shares the story of learning about her relative, Friday Truehart, who was brought to the state from Charleston, SC, by a Baptist pastor named Oliver Hart during the Revolutionary War—and in doing so, took a 13-year-old boy away from his mother. Never did the two see each other again.
One of the many triumphs of The Price of Silence is that it centers the stories of those who were enslaved, like Friday.
“I knew that in creating it with personal stories … that it would evoke [viewers’] emotions and take it from something that could have been a history lesson, which I didn’t really want to do, and [make it] a history lesson with stories that people could actually relate to and put them in the shoes of those individuals,” Hutchinson says.
Those personal stories are juxtaposed with cutting reminders that enslaved people were property. For instance, Hart’s will specified Friday was to be freed, but he was first to be given to his son, along with other family possessions—papers and pepper mills.
Or consider the story of Prime, as told in The Price of Silence. Prime was enslaved in Princeton, but when the loyalist head of household fled out of state, Prime escaped back to NJ believing if he fought for the Continental Army, he’d be free at the end of the war. He did fight and, at war’s end, worked as a day laborer in Trenton. To his surprise, a man came and essentially kidnapped him one day, saying he had purchased Prime from his original owner. He produced a sales receipt—100 British pounds for a chair, a horse and “negroes.”
But what’s so indicative of how enslaved people were viewed as property is that when the claim to Prime’s ownership went to court, the court ruled that the state actually owned him, not the purchaser, because it had seized Prime’s original owner’s property. Think about that: The state of New Jersey owned this man.
Prime was freed through an act of legislature; in his appeal to the state, he wrote: “The legislature then sitting at Princeton seemed to be of the opinion that there was something very inconsistent in contending for liberty under an appeal to heaven and at the same time selling the bodies and service of human beings into perpetual bondage.”
What a historically profound statement to not only include in the film, but to find at all. Indeed, the personal histories of enslaved people are not easy to find; we only know so much about Friday in large part because of Oliver Hart’s journals. They were property, and so records of their lives are minimal; and not to be glib, but there might exist more information about a chair on Antiques Roadshow than about someone’s ancestor.
So it’s a testament to The Price of Silence, and the work of Mills, Buck and the other sources featured in it, that these stories are told, and told in an engaging way. It sets the stage for the second part of the film, which dives into the lasting impacts of slavery and how centuries-old perceptions of black people pervade (and infect) society today.
“The more I learned, I thought I can’t do this without making a statement about how the African American community is still feeling the impacts of slavery today,” Hutchinson says.
In the film, lawmakers, researchers and advocates draw clear lines between slavery and current inequities for black people in housing, criminal justice, income inequality and more. The film makes a powerful case for widespread reform and reparations. And, reinforcing the strength of the film, Hutchinson marries those discussions with a frank conversation with a black musician who grew up in Hopewell and recounts the everyday prejudices and racism she experienced growing up in NJ.
The Price of Silence connects us to people, throughout history, harmed by slavery in NJ and provides some tools on how to address the lingering injustices. But perhaps its most elemental strength—given that slavery has been absent from our standard education in this state and that folks are trying to ban curricula that includes mention of it—is that it’s willing to take a look at all.