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New Jersey Will Erect Black History Markers Under New Law

by Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor

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New Jersey will begin marking the history of slavery, abolition, and trailblazing within its borders in a bid to recognize and remember the contributions of Black New Jerseyans.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed into law a bill requiring the state Historical Commission to establish a Black Heritage Trail that will mark sites of importance throughout the state.

“Very little history is known about the activities of Black African Americans in this county and this state,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said at the bill signing held in the city’s public library. “It’s important that we do this for us, as many of us see our history only as migrants who came here in the first and second wave of the great migration from the south.”

The bill, which passed unanimously in both legislative chambers, sets aside $1 million for markers and plaques at various historical sites identified by the New Jersey Historical Commission to commemorate people, places, or events significant to Black history in New Jersey.

New Jersey has its share of history in that regard. Thomas Mundy Peterson, a Perth Amboy resident, is widely regarded as the first Black American to cast a vote after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which extended suffrage to Black Americans.

The trail will commemorate the experience of those like Mundy Peterson who left a mark on the state or broke new ground amid opposition from institutional forces, as did Larry Doby, who was the first Black player in the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs—now referred to as the American League—and was later inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame.

“They are stories which need to be told. They are sites which need to be visited and lives which need to be understood. New Jersey’s Black Heritage Trail will do each of these,” Murphy said.

The trail will help preserve the state’s Black history at a time of continued racial tumult in America, said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus.

“It is our job to carry forth the torch that has been placed on our shoulders to continue to move the mission forward of former Assemblyman William Payne,” she said. “It is our job to make sure that we keep history alive.”

Payne championed the legislation that brought Black history lessons into New Jersey schools.

Though New Jersey joined with other northern states against the Confederacy in the Civil War, its history is not free of the ignominy of slavery.

The Garden State was the last northern state to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which outlawed slavery and extended citizenship and voting rights to nonwhite Americans.

The new law bars the commission from using public funds to erect trail markers or other signs on private property, though it can accept private funding for that purpose.

It also demands state tourism officials launch a website describing heritage sites picked for the trail. Some markers, erected by local and county groups, are already up, including at former slave trade sites in Camden and Perth Amboy.

“If we are to be honest, the history of Black New Jersey is also a history with which our state must also come to terms,” Murphy said. “Today we honor our state’s diversity—we wear it as a badge of honor—but the truth is New Jersey has not always been welcoming or supportive of our Black residents.”