Meet the ‘Detectives’ Documenting New Jersey’s Overlooked Black History

Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck have spent more than a decade exploring neglected local stories

Mills and  Buck
Mills (left) and Buck (right) use painstakingly gathered documents to spread knowledge of local black history. Wild River Publishing

More than a decade ago, Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck—members of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association in New Jersey’s Hopewell Valley—began exploring the overlooked African American history of their hometowns. Since then, they’ve written a book, created a series of videos and opened a museum detailing the region's past.

As Buck, 67, and Mills, 70, tell the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler, back when they were students in the area, their schools taught them almost nothing about the history of local black communities and practice of slavery in New Jersey.

“History wasn’t interesting to me, and the reason is they left half the people out,” Buck says. “All you heard about was white people with wigs on.”

The friends—who describe themselves as amateur “history detectives”—began their work when a local man reached out to the cemetery association for help preventing the construction of a driveway over a historic African American burial ground. As Wendy Greenberg reports for Princeton magazine, Buck and Mills worked with an archaeologist and sought out the archival documentation needed to stop the project. After that success, they kept digging into historical materials.

Working with local historical societies, the pair found old legal documents, newspaper advertisements, family Bibles and other records that fleshed out hundreds of years of black life in the area. In some cases, the only records of enslaved people were property listings that named them alongside other “items.” The pair found one name on a credit ledger from a store.

“For Elaine and me, this experience was life-changing,” Mills tells Princeton magazine. “Suddenly we were transformed from part-time trustees of a cemetery to historical archivists.”

Buck and Mills say they were shocked to learn that central New Jersey depended on enslaved people for labor well into the 19th century. Documents they uncovered recorded 4,700 enslaved people in the state in 1747 and 12,000 in 1800. Though New Jersey passed a law abolishing slavery in the state in 1804, the legislation only took effect on a very gradual timeline. People were still enslaved in New Jersey until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865—the latest of any northern state, according to the Princeton & Slavery project.

Meet the 'Detectives' Documenting New Jersey's Overlooked Black History
Mills and Buck have found extensive documentation of African American people's place in New Jersey history. Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Tracing her own family’s history, Mills learned that one of her ancestors, Friday Truehart, was brought from South Carolina to the Sourland Mountain region of New Jersey when he was 13 years old. Truehart was enslaved by Reverend Oliver Hart, pastor of the Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell, prior to the American Revolution. Last year, Buck and Mills formed Friday Truehart Consultants, which seeks to help local schools and other organizations incorporate local black history into their work, in Mills’ fourth-great-grandfather’s honor.

The amateur historians also found records of black Revolutionary War soldiers. They learned that when George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River in 1776, African American men steered the boats. And, looking at lists of voters, they discovered that black people participated in elections around the turn of the 19th century.

“To think that the people of color who lived here were able to vote here, before they were disenfranchised [in 1807]? In 1801?” says Mills to the Times.

In 2014, the two women turned some of their findings into a lecture for the Sourland Conservancy. This collaboration led to a partnership between the cemetery association and the conservancy that, in turn, yielded the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Skillman. The physical museum is still under development, but its staff and volunteers have already worked on archaeological and historical preservation efforts in the area.

Mills and Buck published their historical findings in a 2018 book titled If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey. More recently, the researchers have partnered with the Sourland Conservancy to create two videos about local black history and the museum project.

“Through these videos, we hope to reach a broad audience and raise awareness of the true history of slavery and segregation in the region, the important contributions of the African Americans who have lived here for many generations, and the importance of opening a dialogue to increase understanding and bring the community together,” says Laurie Cleveland, executive director of the conservancy, in a statement.

Museum trustee Kevin Burkman says that the videos offer a way to share historical information with the public at a time when Covid-19 is making in-person events difficult.

He adds, “This provides a much richer experience for the public to learn about the true history of our area.”