“If These Stones Could Talk”

A Book, a Museum, and Newly-Discovered African American History in the Sourland Region

By Wendy Greenberg

This is a story of a community taking control of its past, its present, and its future. It’s a story of what can happen when people of faith set out to protect and publicize important truths and stories gleaned from a few of the oldest African American cemeteries in Hunterdon and Mercer counties in central New Jersey.”

From the introduction to If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey by Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills

They call it the phone call that changed their lives.

Fourteen years ago, Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, both in their 50s at the time, working for their communities, in their churches, and with their families, had no idea what was in store for them. But during the next decade and beyond they would write a book, set up a museum, and form a consulting business. Most impactful to them, they learned about their own descendants, and uncovered a history of slavery in Central New Jersey.

The call, from Walter Niemeier Jr. of Lambertville, came to Buck, of Hopewell Borough, assistant secretary of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association (her husband, John Buck, is president, and Mills, of Pennington Borough, is secretary). Niemeier, who died in 2018, had discovered that a paved driveway was planned for a lot off Rock Road in Hunterdon County — land that he recalled was an African American burial ground. The lot was originally owned by Elnathan Stevenson, who had been a judge in Hunterdon County in the early 19th century. Because of their involvement in Stoutsburg Cemetery, some 10 miles away, Niemeier thought that the Bucks and Mills might want to know about the planned desecration.

The women went to Rock Road to protest the construction and met resistance, receiving a threatening letter from the landowner’s attorney. Then one day a neighbor gave them a photocopy of part of Stevenson’s will. Having seen local media coverage, Joe Klett, Buck’s longtime friend and classmate, who happened to be the chief of New Jersey Archives, had retrieved the original will that confirmed Stevenson himself wanted the lot to remain a burial ground.

Buck and Mills were told they needed to prove it was a burial ground, perhaps through an archaeologist. But where, thought Buck, would she find one? The next day she read a newspaper article about local archaeologist Ian Burrow, and realized she knew him. Burrow came on board and helped them throughout the process. Buck calls each event a “Godincidence.”

The contractor did back down, but the Rock Road incident was just the beginning. Buck and Mills wondered about the history of Stoutsburg Cemetery off Province Line Road in Hopewell Township, a field tucked into the Sourland Mountains overlooking the Hopewell Valley surrounding Princeton. Some of the markers had sunk below the ground, but they both had close family members buried there, and knew that there were probably soldiers from the American Revolution and Civil War.

Some of the artifacts in the museum.

Life-Changing Work

So the women went to work, contacting staffs in historical societies — especially the Hunterdon Historical Society — and discovering the David Library of the American Revolution in Washington Crossing, Pa. They did research using newspaper advertisements, court dockets, post-Civil War Freedman’s Bureau reports, family Bibles, family trees, and maps.

“For Elaine and me, this experience was life-changing,” says Mills. “Suddenly we were transformed from part-time trustees of a cemetery to historical archivists.” She says they felt a responsibility to be “the voice for the voiceless.”

The difficulty in finding information was apparent. Some records were only held by white slave owners, listing slaves as property, with other “items.” One name was found on a credit ledger from a store.

They learned, says Mills, who is a descendant of one of the first slaves brought to the Sourland Mountain region, that “our history is hidden and not considered important. It’s one of the reasons we wrote the book.” Her fourth great-grandfather, Friday Truehart, was brought from South Carolina at the age of 13, while enslaved by the Rev. Oliver Hart, pastor of the Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell, her research found.

They write in the book, “We had learned in school that slavery existed in the South and that it was not uncommon for slaves to take on the last name of their masters. But we thought, certainly this could not have happened in New Jersey? We couldn’t have been more wrong!”

Mills and Buck say that they were initially shocked that Central New Jersey’s early labor consisted of slaves. They found documents that show 4,700 enslaved individuals in New Jersey in 1745, with the number topping 12,000 by the 1800 United States Census.

“How could two small-town, middle-aged African American women make a difference in reshaping how our history is taught and perceived?” they write.

Yet they did. Readers learn about the region’s history; the impact of faith and churches on African Americans and military history; and meet descendants from the Sourland Mountain region, among them Trenton resident Constance Wheeler; Geraldine Hoagland of Hamilton; John Buck of Hopewell Borough, who is a descendant of the Nevius family; and the Grover family from Skillman; who all tell their unique stories.

During their research, Buck and Mills heard a talk at the David Library by Marion T. Lane, an African American Daughter of the American Revolution. “It shot us out of the cannon,” says Mills, and sent them on a path to learn about African American involvement in the military.

They say they were not as surprised to discover a strong African American military presence. They contacted the fourth great-grandson of William Stives, who served in the Revolutionary War. Although his burial location is disputed, there is a memorial marker for Stives at Stoutsburg. They also found that African Americans steered the small boats crossing the Delaware River with George Washington. “It took hours of scouring books to get the list of African Americans who crossed the Delaware,” says Buck. “Hours. Looking through books, the records had marked everyone who was colored.”

Many who served in the Civil War from this region volunteered in the 8th, 11th, 41st, 45th, and 127th regiments of the United States Colored Troops and trained at the only training ground for African Americans, Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, Pa.

A display on African American family heritage, at the museum.

Absent From History

“My school never said a word,” says Buck, the product of Hopewell public schools. “Slaves could fight in place of the master.” She says she didn’t understand the history she learned in school. “Now I know why. They left a few people out.”

Writing the book was a 10-year process, including raising funds, research and writing, and hours of scrutinizing records. The staffs at local historical societies dug through boxes in their basements. “To see my fourth great-grandfather’s manumission paper, I was almost in tears,” says Mills. (Manumission is release from slavery by a master.) Slavery was outlawed in New Jersey in 1804, through a “gradual” emancipation.

The information confirmed what they knew from their families. “Because our history has been lacking and sanitized, when you find out the enormous contributions of the enslaved in our region, you see our country would not be what it is today without free labor,” says Mills.

The book chronicles how Dutch settlers in the 1600s established the rocky wooded region that runs roughly from Lambertville to Hillsborough, bringing with them slaves. When the British came, they used the slaves as labor for mills, industry and pottery production, and quarries.

If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey, was published by Wild River Books in Lambertville, with grants from Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission, the Bunberry Foundation, and Princeton Area Community Foundation.

To support the book, Mills and Buck began a speaking tour, and in 2014 first lectured for the Sourland Conservancy at the Hopewell Train Station. That led to a partnership between the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association and the Sourland Conservancy — the basis for the founding of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) on Hollow Road in the former Mt. Zion African American Episcopal Church.

Neighbors had heard about the project, and began bringing items like aprons made for a church fundraiser from the 1930s, ladies’ hats, sheet music, or tools. For some time, these artifacts sat on an 8-foot long table at the Buck house, between the dining room and kitchen, until they were able to house them. The one-room church building, built in 1899 and donated by the True family, was refurbished in 2012 with fundraising and grants from historic preservation groups.

To enter the church is to almost go back in time. The pews have been restored to pristine condition, and artifacts and educational posters line the walls. Old hand fans are available in a basket. Buck and Mills have a long history with the church. “Blacks needed a specific place to worship,” Buck says. “We visited there as young girls, and sang in a gospel group.” The church is now on the New Jersey  Register of Historic Places.

The SSAAM is a partner in the Sankofa Collaborative, along with the William Trent House, Grounds For Sculpture, New Jersey Historical Society, and 1804 Consultants, to help schools, museums, libraries, and historic sites interpret and discuss topics in African American history, and to make sure the appropriate materials and resources are accessible statewide to broader audiences. 

Elaine Buck, John Buck, and Beverly Mills at Rock Creek, next to where a new educational and cultural center will be built with the Sourland Conservancy.

Looking Forward

This past summer, the Sourland Conservancy and the SSAAM became co-owners of the property at 191 Hollow Road overlooking woodlands and Rock Brook, the future home of administrative offices and a cultural and education center. This was a joint effort with D&R Greenway Land Trust, Montgomery Township, and the Whidden family, who owned the property.

And Buck and Mills have taken their quest a step further. “As our story began to take shape,” says Mills, “we realized it can be transferred to any part of the United States, and the information needs to be put in school curricula. I am the product of slaves, but we were never taught that slavery existed in New Jersey. [We thought] that it only happened in the South.”

They formed a consultancy named for Friday Truehart, Mills’ ancestor, to speak to classes, and help others do similar research. “African American history was an integral part of American history, not just for one month a year,” she says. “This country was built on the backs of enslaved individuals.”

Mills and Buck say they often think about how they completely changed their lives to start this journey, and they are not sorry. “A decade ago,” they write, “if we had a crystal ball that would enable us to gaze into the future, would we have answered the call to devote a significant portion of our lives to this project? Would we be prepared to be a voice for scores of faceless, marginalized individuals, some of whom were our ancestors? The answer is decidedly yes.”

As Buck puts it: “Here we are. Two middle-aged ladies, making a change.”

The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum is located at 189 Hollow Road in Skillman. For more, visit  www.ssaamuseum.org.

Friday Truehart Consultants can be reached at P.O. Box 220, Hopewell, NJ 08525.

Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, center, were presented with the 2019 New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance (NJSAA) Award for “If These Stones Could Talk” by Deborah Mercer of NJSAA, left, and Bob Vietrogoski, chair of NJSAA and librarian, Rutgers University Libraries. (Photo by John Buck)