Moments in American History or Moral Ethics?: Two Things You May Have Never Learned Before

Dr. Forrest Pritchett Credits: Seton Hall University

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - New Jersey is not exempt from the historically charged issue of the burial of Africans. Even today, many New Jersey residents are totally unaware of the existence of slavery and the role of slavery in this colony and state.

On a small plot of land near downtown Bedminster lies the unmarked graves of an undetermined number of Americans from the post-Revolutionary War era. It was bought for three dollars in 1801 by two slaves and a free black man, who was a local beekeeper. "They wanted a burial site for themselves and their black neighbors," said Wendy Kennedy, a member of the Bedminster Historic Preservation Committee who helped research the site. For 215 years, the plot went unmarked and undetected until a local preservation group decided to investigate its existence.

On Friday June 22, 2018 at 6 p.m., at 130 Hillside Avenue, Bedminster NJ a ceremony of commemoration of the 217th anniversary of the purchase of “God’s Acre,” will be conducted to remember the Africans who are buried there. The “God’s Acre” grave site was discovered several years ago. This ceremony will be coordinated by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) of Morris County, Plainfield and Tri City (Springfield, Summit, and Vauxhall,), and the Plainfield Historical Society. The program is open to the public. For more information contact or (908) 419-7526.

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The controversy concerning the burial sites for Africans began to surface publically in the 1990s with the initial excavation for a federal office building construction project in New York City. The “Negroes Buriel Ground”* was documented in the 1754 Maerschalck map, the site was gradually forgotten as New York expanded over the next 200 years. The initial government position was rather simple, as the owners of the land the human remains and grave markers were expendable and would be removed to make way for the construction. The shift in attitude did not occur because groups of historians insisted on the historical integrity and importance of the area, but occurred after a lot of community based activism. The state was convinced that a more dignified approach was necessary. Eventually Archaeologists uncovered over 400 burials by the time the dig ended in 1992 amidst political controversy.

2018 also marked the 153st celebration of the holiday known as Juneteenth (June 19) and few places celebrate with more gusto than Galveston, Texas, where it all began. Have you ever heard of Juneteenth before? Can you tell the story and narrative of how African slaves were buried in the American Colonies? If your response to both of these questions is no, then one must ask the question, why are certain details omitted from the presentation of the story of American history? Are all segments of our American story worthy of presentation? Whose narrative is considered the American narrative?

What is the significance of June 19th? Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, is an American holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. state of Texas, and more generally the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans throughout the former Confederacy.

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, but it took close to three more years before the full emancipation of America’s slaves was completed.

The occurred on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to issue General Order No. 3, officially freeing America’s final slaves. This date is celebrated as Black Independence Day by African Americans across the nation.

The expression “Black History is American History” is often cited as a way of implying that all of our specific cultural histories are included and captured in an understanding of American History. But as we look at the behavior surrounding the emergence of Juneteenth or Freedom Day, or the indignities surrounding the burial of African in times of segregation, how many Americans can honestly at that they knew those facts because it was covered when they studied American History. Many historians identified the fact that many circumstances are omitted in developing the narrative called American History.   

James W. Loewen states in, "Methods for Teaching Slavery to High School Students and College Undergraduates in the United States," in Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lyerly, eds., Understanding and Teaching American Slavery (Madison: U of WI Press, 2016),

"Slavery's twin legacies to the present are the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it impregnated within white minds and inside our culture. Both still haunt our society. Unlike slavery, racism is not over yet. Textbooks have trouble treating honestly any problem that has not already been solved."

To understand our country, Americans must understand the role slavery has played in every aspect of our country from its foundling, to the development of its territories, to the development of the world’s greatest economy, to the emergence of the socio-political processes to perpetuate institutional racism into the twenty-first century. Understandably, the topic can make teachers nervous. But teachers who leave it out, cover it hastily, or soften its harshness inadvertently minimize its importance. This makes history white, not right. Most textbooks now show the horror of slavery and its impact on black America. However, they remain largely silent about its impact on white America, North or South.

*”The Negroes Buriel Ground” is now designated as the African Burial Ground and was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1993

Rev. Dr. Forrest Pritchett, a resident of Morris Township, NJ, worked at numerous university's during his fifty year career.  He is currently Director of Special Projects and an Adjunct Professor in Africana, Religious and Interdisciplinary Studies at Seton Hall University. He is also the Program Director for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Program. He was awarded the University McQuaid Medal in 2003 (Seton Hall’s highest honor), the University Human Relations Citation in 1997. Rev. Pritchett was also acknowledged for his involvement in the community. Rev. Pritchett received the New Jersey Association of Black Educators the "Black Educator of the Year Award," from the Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History and the "Frederick Douglas-Sojourner Truth Award," from the Jersey City Library the "Paul Robeson Award"; from the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Programs, the "Educational Champion Award," and by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: New Jersey Convention the "Distinguished Educator Award." He is affiliated with numerous advocacy organizations throughout the African diaspora and is a frequent speaker and instructor in the state prison system.  In 2016 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooperation for National and Community Service and Office of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, President.



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