EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - The great rural area that later developed into a commercial zone near Main Street in the oldest part of the township was an area of transition, movement, and change in the first years of New Brunswick. Visible from the high point at Chestnut Hill Cemetery, the buildings that comprise the Historic Village of Old Bridge have lots of stories to tell. Some tales are sources of pride and a record of growth, while others are not. The story of the "slave ring" involving Judge Jacob Van Wickle who sold off 100 enslaved people in 1818 is one such story. Van Wickle was featured this past Sunday in The New York Times as part of a series called the 1619 Project, an extended review of the 400 years that have passed since the first African slaves arrived in what would become the United States.
By 1818, New Jersey was near to ending slavery and had placed many limitations on buying, selling, or transporting slaves. Nonetheless, Van Wickle, a county judge, rounded up slaves and, using the legal manipulations against them, altered their status so that they could be sent to the deep South, breaking up families and violating what minimal rights they had.
"State law held that children born to an enslaved woman were free, but had to remain in service to their mothers’ owners until they became adults. There were two loopholes, however. First, if their mothers were sold, their own enslavement could be temporarily extended; second, enslaved people could be moved from the state and remain enslaved, so long as they gave their consent. Van Wickle used these loopholes with cruel effectiveness. He and his collaborators often signed off on paperwork that moved unwitting people, including mothers and their freeborn children, to the South. Then he sold them to traders and planters in Louisiana, separating them from their families — most of whom would never see them again. Though there was local outcry when his dealings were discovered, he himself was never punished for his crimes," says Professor Anne C. Bailey in The Times.
The Times article "They Sold Human Beings Here" calls "a lack of markers" and "obstacle to reclaiming the history of slave sale sites." Indeed, the site of Van Wickle's estate is partially covered by a power station on Main Street. Reverend Karen Johnston, of the East Brunswick Unitarian Society on Tices Lane, sees the need to perform a "healing act" by remembering those who were lost to the deviousness of Van Wickle.
This Monday, Johnston and other members of the Lost Souls Memorial Project will speak at the East Brunswick Township Council Meeting at 7:30 in the Municipal Court Room. Among several items on their agenda, the members will discuss the placement of a memorial at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center, a project that has the Council's support. "The Project is developing a comprehensive plan to build a public memorial so that these “lost souls” will never be forgotten. Co-sponsors ... include the New Brunswick Area Branch of the NAACP, The Unitarian Society (in East Brunswick), the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society - NJ Chapter, the Sons & Daughters of the US Middle Passage Society, the East Brunswick Human Relations Council and the East Brunswick Senior Center," said Johnston in 2018.
In this series of articles, TAPinto East Brunswick will focus on the several projects that are in place to memorialize enslaved people here in our local area and the efforts of the Lost Souls Memorial Project to recognize our shared history.