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New Jersey and the Underground Railroad

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

The history of slavery in New Jersey encompasses both the bad and the good. On one hand, the state enacted legislation in 1786 that banned importation of slaves, ending the African slave trade to the state’s ports.

But those who already enslaved people were permitted to keep them. In the ensuing 15 years, abolition was such a major and divisive issue that New Jersey was the very last northern state to outlaw it through a gradual process that began in 1804, freeing all Black children born after July 4, 1804 — but only after they turned 21 (for females) or 25 (for males). In 1846 a second law was enacted that made the state’s remaining enslaved people (all elderly) “apprentices” for life -- and still not free. The 1860 census recorded 18 enslaved people in New Jersey – the only state in the north to still have them.

Abolition of slavery started to become a focus of social and political change beginning in about 1830. It was strongly advocated in the southern half of the state, which was predominantly Quaker, and was resisted in the northern half of the state, populated by Dutch and English farmers and businessmen.

A committed group of people in Philadelphia and New Jersey, including free Blacks and abolitionists, were able to form a secretive but effective road to freedom that led from the eastern slave states — primarily Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland — to the farm houses of Cumberland, Gloucester and Burlington Counties through New Brunswick to Elizabeth, Newark and Jersey City, and finally to New York and often Canada. This was the New Jersey section of the Underground Railroad, which nationwide ultimately helped some 30,000 to 40,000 enslaved people to reach freedom.

New Jersey is associated with two of the leading figures in the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman, who escaped through the Underground Railroad from slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland, worked in Cape May during the summers from 1849 to 1852, and was responsible for guiding more than 300 slaves from Maryland to Ontario, Canada. Canada became a safe haven after Britain outlawed slavery in 1833.

Native New Jerseyan William Still, whose descendants still live in the largely Black community of Lawnside, in Camden County, was a key organizer of the railroad operations in Philadelphia, and wrote a book in 1872 about the experiences of the courageous fugitives he helped to bring to safety.

The free Blacks and white people who helped the freedom seekers – with whispered signals or with shelter and food – put themselves in great danger. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave the federal government responsibility for capturing escaped slaves, required their return, and punished those who aided or protected them with fines and imprisonment. (The U.S. Constitution prevented enslaved people from gaining their freedom by escaping to non-slave states.) Slave catchers were employed to bring back fugitives, and if they could not find those they were seeking, they would sometimes kidnap free Blacks and allege that they were escapees.

The start of the Civil War brought an end to the Underground Railroad, as Black people in the South joined the Union Army forces entering their region rather than journey to the North.

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