Journey to the Sourlands, and a Journey through Centuries: Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

June 15, 2021
By Rikki Massand

The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM), currently showcasing a one-room schoolhouse at the southwest end of Montgomery Township, and its affiliate Stoutsburg Cemetery in Hopewell Township, will be better able to welcome visitors and introduce a full history of slavery and black settlement in the state as a cornerstone to New Jersey’s African American heritage trail. SSAAM began with the historic former Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is entering Phase 2 restoration with support from a 2021 grant of $20,808 from the Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission to SSAAM. Grant funding is administered through Somerset County as part of the County History Partnership Program (CHPP), established by the New Jersey Historical Commission in 2015, with local re-granting across New Jersey’s 21 counties. Currently SSAAM is awaiting bids from contractors to complete needed HVAC installation. Since the 1800s the building has been intact with no heat or A/C, and some cosmetic work will also be done.

Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church

A 1.2-acre lot fronting Hollow Road in Montgomery was jointly purchased by two partnering nonprofit organizations, SSAAM and the Sourland Conservancy, to build the new environmental and cultural center that will serve as a community and programming hub, and a link between the AME Church and Montgomery’s Bessie Grover Park. Announced in fall 2020, this project is supported by a Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation fund grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust: SSAAM received $50,000 (in matching funds) for a site master plan of the future museum & education center currently housed in the former Mount Zion AME Church.

Two lifelong friends and former classmates at Hopewell Valley Central High School, Pennington Borough native and current Borough Councilmember Beverly Mills and Sharon (Elaine) Buck of Hopewell Borough, have spearheaded the efforts with 15 years of research into African American history in this region. A culmination occurred in 2018 with the publication of their first book, “If These Stones Could Talk” but since the stories are still being unearthed, today they’re working on a second book. The pair has a consulting firm bearing the namesake of Beverly Mills’ maternal fourth great-grandfather Friday Truehart. At age 13, young Friday was brought to the Hopewell Valley by Rev. Oliver Hart, former pastor of the Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell Borough.

Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck

Mills describes the one-room schoolhouse as a step back to the 1800s. The experience to visitors, however, starts with the tales of Africa where the slaves were taken from, and how their TransAtlantic voyage via slave ships took place.

“These are things we were not taught in school — we never heard a word. When we started to write our book we found so much information on African American presence here; while we researched we found we’re related to these people we were researching. They are literally our African descendants,” Buck explained.

Stories of African Americans in the Sourlands will finally have an epicenter to bring sizable audiences to. “We’ll have restrooms plus a kitchen in there so we can make delectable, traditional African American fare. Educational programs, including virtual tours of the region, can shift top in-person from holding them over Zoom due to the pandemic,” Buck noted.

Mills explains this will be a new space envisioned to tell the black history of the Sourlands “in the way it should be told.” In the 1800s, there was so much involved in “why black people had to take matters into their own hands,” she said. At Stoutsburg Cemetery, when ground-penetrating radar was used 10 to 12 years ago some anomalies were discovered. Elders in the Hopewell Valley told Mills and Buck there were originally two sections of cemetery: the early section and the one currently outlined. The deed for land the cemetery is on reads from Randolph Stout, a Moore family member, to a trio: Stacy Stives, Moses Blew (as in Blawenburg) and Henry Lane, officially recorded in 1869. But burials here precede this date by decades.

Mills noted that Stacy Stives was the son of Revolutionary War veteran William Stives (1760-1839) and one of the first black inhabitants of the Sourlands; he was also a member of the Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell for over 40 years. “One thing we do know is that people of color that were members of that church would have been buried away from white people who were members,” she said.

The exact age of Stoutsburg Cemetery is unsolved, and there is no official count of how many people are buried there. Sourland Mountain legend Sylvia DuBois, born a slave but later taking freedom into her own hands with a strike to her slave mistress, is another real story brought to life through Stoutsburg Cemetery archives. She is believed to have lived to 116 years old (at least) and had a stint as a bouncer at her infamous Sourlands’ tavern.

Though death records were well documented in the 1800s, local cemeteries were segregated. Mills researched a bill from 1884 that then altered continued segregation in burial.

“It wasn’t until legislation that deemed it illegal to segregate people in cemeteries based on color that this changed. However, black people in the Sourland Mountain region founded Stoutsburg Cemetery so they would not have to deal with any indignities when it came to laying their loved ones to rest. We now know that they made a business deal with a local farmer who had extra land called the Moore’s Farmland,” she said.

Buck explains, “These discoveries are like putting a big puzzle together. It’s all taken shape here in Montgomery and Hopewell. People were brought to this area after being brought across the Atlantic, into New York and Philadelphia, and sold at auction then transported here via Perth Amboy or Camden — using the Raritan Bay and Delaware River.. New Jersey was very complicit with slavery, just like in the South, and there’s more to learn when we start with asking, ‘why was NJ the last northern state to abolish slavery?’

As their research and plans for public presentations still evolve, Mills concluded, like many present day historians, she continues ‘to be amazed how New Jersey was so firmly entrenched in slavery.’

“The economic underpinnings of America’s original 13 colonies was all due to slavery. Asking Why this and Why that brings up a whole other list of questions about things we were never taught, and I guess it was not deemed important enough to include in our school history lessons. Rev.’ Hart left Charleston following the British invasion, and his patriotic leaning. He brought slaves north when he came to pastor the Old School Baptist Church, seeking a new life for himself. It’s ironic these patriots fought tooth and nail to be free of British rule but they kept slaves and could see no problem with it. Hart was one of those people, even writing in his diary ‘we (colonists) will not be slaves‘; he was a slave owner and his young slave ended up my fourth great-grandfather, who lived in the Sourland Mountain region for the rest of his life,” she said.

Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki N. Massand serves as Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County. He also covers Hunterdon County government, planning and economic development for Flemington’s TAPInto online news and freelances for multiple tristate area ‘newszines.’

Rikki is a regional historian and local advocate in his present municipal government-appointed roles on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. He is also experienced in not-for-profit administration and advocacy as office administrator, records manager and bookkeeper for a local United Church of Christ.

Rikki holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Quinnipiac University. His work has appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, AsianWeek and more.