As Bayonne transforms physically and culturally amid its redevelopment boom, it is important to always remember the city’s history. The city at the southernmost tip of Hudson County was once home to a number of slaves. Public Information Officer Joe Ryan, also a historian with a wealth of local knowledge, confirmed this in an interview with the Bayonne Community News.
One of the first and most prominent slave-owning families in Bayonne prior to abolition was the Dutch family Van Buskirk. This was back in the time when Hudson County was still a part of Bergen County, known as Bergen Township. The slaves were forced to work on plantations that once dotted peninsula, with the practice recorded as early as the first settlements in 1655.
“Bayonne had a lot of farms into the late 19th century, and there were still a couple of them into the early 20th century,” Ryan said. “There were farms all over on Constable Hook, uptown, downtown, midtown, by Newark Bay. Crops were grown and cattle was raised. There were slaves who worked on agricultural work, others who worked in homes, and others who worked harvesting shellfish.”
According to Ryan, many slaves were forced to worked in the shellfish trade in the surrounding bodies of water.
“We used to have people digging for other types of shellfish,” Ryan said. “There were some shallow, muddy waters around Bayonne, and there were a lot of clams. There was clam digging and oyster harvesting in New York Bay, specifically on the east side of the city. Both New York Bay and Newark Bay had some marine life, as well as the Kill Van Kull.”
The uptown area was synonymous with the shellfish trade, with older generations having referred to residents of northern part of the city as “clam diggers.” The industry flourished thanks to slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Abolition and industrialization
However, New Jersey was a hold out for slavery for some months after.
“There were still slaves in New Jersey until 1866,” Ryan said. “New Jersey was the last northern state to ratify the 13th amendment ending slavery. There was a variety of continuations of slavery in New Jersey or semi-slavery well into the 1800s. The number of slaves gradually declined, but there were still 15 or 16 slaves in the state at the end of the Civil War. It took the 13th amendment to end that finally.”
Even after being emancipated, many times former slaves would stay with their former slave-owners and take up their last name because they no longer knew their African last name.
“They often stayed and were servants,” Ryan said. “One of my friends found a Van Buskirk listing in the 1870 Census, where there was a man living in the house and his occupation was listed as former slave. There were Van Buskirks that were white and Black.”
According to Ryan, there are few if any remnants from the era still standing in Bayonne. During the post-Civil War era, entering the period of segregation and Jim Crow laws, the scars of slavery remained in Bayonne, but the former plantations were redeveloped amid the industrialization of the city at the turn of the century.
“Bayonne used to be very small, just a few thousand people,” Ryan said. “Industrialization began in the 1870s. It was around 1877 that Standard Oil Company started its first operation in Bayonne. From the 1870s into the 1900s, Bayonne had become more and more industrialized with oil refining and various types of manufacturing replace the agricultural economy. What had been a city of farming and shellfish became a city of oil refineries and factories.”
Black in Bayonne rises
While Bayonne industrialized, its plantations were slowly replaced and thus became part of its lost history of slavery. However, the scars of the practice were still prevalent in the city through blatant racism. Bayonne was once known by people of color as a “sundown town” where it wasn’t safe for non-whites after the sun set.
Camille High, co-founder of Black in Bayonne along with Clarice High, Shaniqua Borders, and Rashad Callaway, told the BCN that Bayonne’s history of slavery was not something initially known to her, but she believes it is part of its history that needs to be told. This is especially important considering February is Black History Month, during which Black in Bayonne has been highlighting the stories of people of color in the city.
“Black in Bayonne and African-Americans celebrate their histories every day,” High said. “As an African-American, I am history. Every single day, I create history. I am my own historian, as well as the Black and Brown people here in Bayonne. We tell our stories, we tell our experiences, and we want to make sure that when we are sharing these Black experiences and Black stories, telling it from our own mouths. That’s the importance of Black History Month. We’re not just telling the stories of the contributions of what Black people have done for society as a whole, but we’re also focusing on Bayonne.”
High said there are many Bayonne resident’s stories who have gone untold, such as the lynching of James Fair Jr. while on a road trip in Georgia after being falsely accused of the murder of an eight-year-old.
“If we don’t tell these stories and share these experiences, our history will just become lost,” High said. “We want to make sure that we’re highlighting and we’re sharing the experiences of African-Americans within the city. We don’t want a generation of lost information. So we are trying our best now to gather people within Bayonne and tell our stories.”
Telling their stories
High said it is important to remember residents like Fair and others from Bayonne’s past, like Dorothy Adams or other Bayonne residents with the NAACP that took part in the 1963 March on Washington.
“We need to know our stories,” High said. “Our ancestors built spaces here, and they are a part of carving our history. We want to make sure those voices don’t go unheard. So us creating safe spaces for Black or Brown people here in Bayonne is essential. We have to be comfortable telling our stories and our experiences.”
According to High, it’s equally important that people of color who share their experiences in Bayonne are believed by those listening.
“When Black stories are shared, they’re often policed,” High said. “People not believing you, telling you to prove information. But if we’re going to make diversity a staple here in Bayonne, than we need to be able to have uncomfortable conversations.”
Part of having those uncomfortable conversations is knowing that allies of other races including white people will listen and believe people of color.
“Allies, if you’re wondering how you can support an underrepresented people is for you to listen to the stories of the people that you’re hearing from, mostly from marginalized groups. Hear their stories, acknowledge them, and have uncomfortable conversations,” High said. “Be able to listen, not just speak up. Doing the work looks like showing up in a space that we cannot and having conversations of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Piecing together history
Having those conversations can work to better understand and work toward ending racism and other bigotry, according to High.
“Bayonne is engulfed in racism, but know we understand why that threat is there and why we’re pulling the thread,” High said. “We are putting the pieces together. We are essentially rebuilding a neighborhood, reconstructing something that we didn’t even know about. People that have been have just been here, unrepresented, quiet. The stories of Black and Brown people in Bayonne have been white washed and completely and utterly erased. But the white washed stories will not continue to erase the Black and Brown history of Bayonne.”
Black in Bayonne, and other groups such as the Young Black Excellence Club at Bayonne High School, aim to carve out the spaces for both older and younger generations in the city.
“Every grassroots organization needs younger people to move it forward,” High said. “That’s what we’re doing, carrying a torch and making sure that we’re handing it off and assisting those that will come up under us to show them how to activate their power. That’s why it’s very important for us to work with the Young Black Excellence Club and carry on the legacy of Carter Woodson. He created a foundation. What we’re doing is continuing to build the house, which the Bayonne NAACP before us and those that are unspoken have done before us. We always like to acknowledge those that work without the spotlight, who have done the work and then their history is lost. It is our hope that we find their stories and share them.
Part of that is recognizing the need to support Black people and businesses outside of Black History Month and all year long. As such, Black in Bayonne put together a Black Business Crawl for Black Friday in 2021, and has held another on Feb. 12 for Black History Month. For more information, visit Black in Bayonne’s social media pages. The event is a new tradition for the community in Bayonne, and a sign of how far Bayonne has come from its roots of slavery and the work that is still to be done.
“Being Black is multi-faceted,” High said. “It doesn’t look like one person. It is essential for us to highlight who we are as a people, not only in the month February but throughout the year. Black history is everyday. Every Black and Brown person here in Bayonne is Black history. We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and we’re going to continue to share our stories.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.