Along the byways and highways of small towns and major cities, the weathered, unique, prominent, sometimes garish, markers of cemeteries usually catch our eye. Although most people are not taphopiles, each year thousands wander the cemeteries of Boston finding the grave-sites of Paul Revere and Sam Adams, make a pilgrimage to Memphis to pay homage to Elvis or stroll through the white crosses of Arlington, stopping at President Kennedy’s eternal flame. Each cemetery marker keeps alive the life story of its honoree and if those stones could talk, a walk through a cemetery could provide a fascinating history of those buried there. But since they are mute, Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills devoted 10 years to researching the stories those stones, and unmarked graves, in the Hopewell Valley and Sourland Mountain region could tell about their roots and the African-American presence there.
For the women, however, it wasn’t curiosity that started them down that path, but a complaint that an unmarked grave-site was going to be paved over for a driveway. The desecration of the site, especially since it was a site for buried slaves and war veterans, did not sit well with many, but stopping it took research. One of the neighbors provided a copy of an old deed marking that site as a cemetery forever, closing the issue. All their research piqued the curiosity of Buck and Mills to find out more about the African-Americans buried in the region.
During their author-talk presentation at the NJ State Library on Feb. 19, based on their book If These Stones Could Talk, they discussed slavery in New Jersey. “People are amazed that there was slavery in New Jersey, over 1200 in 1790 statewide,” said Buck, adding that NJ was the last state in the north to abolish it.
Their research helped them discover some of their ancestors. Mills learned about her 4th great-grandfather worked at the Mount Rose Distillery, Hopewell; another grandfather Friday Truehart was brought to Hopewell with his mother as a slave when he was 13 by Oliver Hart. From her research, she also learned that the stories her grandmother told her were true: her great-grandfather was the first black graduate of Rider College.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of record keeping, most of the information, and histories, died with the people buried there, fortunately, our authors took the time and did the research to give a voice to those stones.
Buck and Mills are the founders of Friday Truehart Consultants, named after Mill’s 4th great-grandfather. Both women work closely with K-12 educators from school systems interested in including African American history in their lesson plans and curriculum. They are founding members who serve on the Advisory Board of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, have been Trustees of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association for the past 35 years, and are members of the National Council of Negro Women and the Sankofa Collaborative, a resource that will ensure that material and resources relating to African American history will be readily accessible statewide to a broader and more diverse audience.