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"Hallowed Ground"
Danger-filled path to freedom led slaves through Jersey City

Jersey Journal

By Genene P. Wiggins

Walking along Clifton Place or Washington Street in Jersey City may not spark much feeling of excitement today, but let's go back to Jersey City before the Civil War.

It is midnight. Most of the city is asleep. Groups of slaves who had been hiding in one of the area's safe houses -- one of which was Clifton Place and another of which was on Washington Street -- are heading to board a boat at the foot of Washington Street in hopes of safely reaching New York City via the Hudson River. From there, they can either blend in with the large free black population or travel farther north to Canada, where slavery does not exist.

Danger is on their heels. Lurking not too far behind are would-be slave catchers who are sure to get a handsome fee if they catch a fleeing slave.

Well, believe it or not, this really was the scene for many runaway slaves who travelled through Jersey City in hopes of reaching freedom, Glenn Cunningham of Jersey City says.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, during the Civil War. Prior to the war some of those enslaved found ways to escape a dismal life of servitude through a system called the Underground Railroad.

And while the actual number is unknown, it is believed that many runaway slaves stopped along the way in Jersey City.

"(Jersey City) played a very, very, very important role" in the success of the Underground Railroad, says Theodore Brunson, director of the Afro-American Historical Society Museum in Jersey City.

Virtually all the traveling was at night. Although actual trains were sometimes used, the most popular and save forms of transportation were ferries, walking and horse-drawn carriages, Brunson says.

William Stills in 1870 wrote a book called "The Underground Railroad." Stills, whose parents had been slaves, helped manyh runaways and believed only those most able to survive chanced the trip.

"It scarcely needs to be stated, as a general rule, the passengers of the Underground Railroad were physically and intellectually above the average order of slaves," he wrote. "They were determined to have liberty even at the cost of life."

For Cunningham -- director of public safety for Hudson County (Glenn Cunningham has been Mayor of Jersey City since July 2001, Web Site editor) and vice president of the New Jersey Chapter of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society -- researching African-American history and the Underground Railroad has become a passion. He has spent about 1,000 hours reading old documents and newspaper clippings from the State Archives in Trenton, the New Jersey Room in the main branch of the Jersey City Public Library and the Afro-American Historical Society Museum in Jersey City.

"Safe houses" -- used to shield runaway slaves from slave catchers -- contributed to the success of the Jersey City Underground Railroad, Cunningham says.

One of those safe houses was owned by David Holden, "a banker and amateur astronomer who moved to the town of Bergen -- now Jersey City - as a young man," Cunningham says. Holden's home, the only one on the street, was offered as a warm shelter for Underground Railroad passengers until it was safe to travel again, Cunningham added.

Today, Holden's house at 79 Clifton Place remains occupied by Holden's descendants who have preserved the house and old family souvenirs, like old photos and portraits of the 19th century, Cunningham says.

There were strong pro-slavery sentiments in the Garden State because of economic ties to the agricultural South, he says. Adding to the danger was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to rescue or conceal slaves from their masters. Those caught were subject to fines and imprisonment.

To outwit the spies, escaping slaves used many routes. "As many as 12 different routes of the Underground Railroad crisscrossed New Jersey , three of which were designated as main lines," Fred W. Bogert wrote in a 1965 article for The Record Magazine. "One of these, startint at Camden- ...headed north through Princeton to New Brunswick and Jersey City."

Slaves also used the Belleville Turnpike to get into Jersey City, Cunningham says, then traveled Newark Avenue to the Downtown section of the city.

Dr. Henry D. Holt used his Jersey City home at 134 Washington St., at the Morris Canal Basin on the Hudson River, to house slaves until they could safely board a boat to freedom.

Holt's house is gone now, but the site at the foot of Washington Street where his house was located continues to provide a view of New York and the Hudson River. Two additions to the scene since the days of slavery are the immigration facilities on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island.

"It is ironic that the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island evolved so close to the spot where African-Americans (slaves) sought the freedom and dignity that those two locations symbolize," Cunningham says. "This is hallowed ground."

Hudson County Facts  by Anthony Olszewski
Hudson County, New Jersey is a place of many firsts - including genocide and slavery.
Political corruption is a tradition here.
First issue in a series by Anthony Olszewski
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