Dr. Kristen Foster is an associate professor of American history at Marquette University. She is working on a book manuscript, titled Haiti’s Mirror: The Impact of the Haitian Revolution on Early American Ideas about Race and Equality.
Armed with a rental car, a map, and a GPS (thank goodness), I headed off to find the Cumberland County Historical Society in Southwestern New Jersey, fondly called South Jersey by locals. This is not the Jersey of Springsteen, Snooki or reality housewives. It’s the other side of the state, settled by Nanticoke Lenape Indians and English Quakers. This region is still lush and green, dotted by wide-open farms ripe with peaches. Now I understand why New Jersey is called the Garden State.
On this particular day, I hoped to find evidence of an early free black and mixed race community that existed unobtrusively here during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, perhaps because it was tucked away from the hungry eyes of slave catchers. Not far from the Cohansey River which flows to the Delaware, I found this gem of a historical society on a sleepy street. A dapper older gentleman named Jack greeted me, and after telling him that I was looking for anything that might help me understand Gouldtown, and, in a larger sense, the lived revolutionary-era experiences of free black Americans. Jack started bringing me books and a couple of modest files. While I was working my way through these, another patron arrived and filled the room with happy banter. It was clear this man was a local. No sooner had I settled into the comfortable Sunday afternoon atmosphere, than Jack introduced me to this man, Ian, saying “here is the person you want to talk with.”
Ian, a consummate raconteur, sat with me in the hard chairs at the broad oak table and moved easily through the history of families and towns in the region. I couldn’t write fast enough—Goulds, Pierces, Murrys, Cuffs…not the Loatmans or Hughes’s (they were from Delaware and intermarried with the Lenni Lenape, he said). That’s another story. He told me I needed to go to Springtown and that I should poke around Greenwich too. He gave me contacts, and invited me to his AME church to network. He told me where to go to have lunch with the Nanticoke Lenape descendants if I wanted to go that direction. By the time we were finished, I had reaffirmed my appreciation for the stories people hold in their care and the meticulous work social historians do. In fact, I had to email Marquette’s own social historian Tom Jablonsky to tell him this. Town by town, street by street, name by name; histories are restored. Ian reminded me once again why history is fun and why getting away from the computer and library is crucial to the process of understanding the past.