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New Jersey Is Honoring Black History and Culture With New $1M Heritage Trail

New Jersey Is Honoring Black History and Culture With New $1M Heritage Trail

Governor Phil Murphy has committed $1 million to the project!

New Jersey is honoring its Black history and culture with a new $1 million Heritage Trail, News One reports. 

The state of New Jersey has a rich history littered with the contributions of Black people. From the abolitionist work of Harriet Tubman in Cape May to Fabiana Pierre-Louis’s recent historic win as the first Black woman to sit on the state’s Supreme Court in more than two centuries, the state is filled with a well of Black culture and history. 

In 2020, New Jersey erected the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, located directly next to the historic Macedonia Baptist church. While the magnitude of Tubman’s life and legacy was a highlight of the new exhibit, what makes the museum most unique is its vast collection of artifacts collected by former Macedonia Baptist pastor, the late Reverend Robert Davis. 

"There’s so much Black history ... it’s unbelievable. There’s just the history of the background of Harriet Tubman. What she did was amazing ... what she did as a woman ... it’s just a wonderful thing… I hope this becomes a place for the kids to extend their learning [about Tubman’s life],” said Eugene Dempsey, an 82-year-old Air Force Veteran and longtime resident of Cape May.

Still, Jersey natives keep going and the beautiful thing about the state is that it’s not just full of history from long ago ancestors. Residents in the state are actively creating new history and there are new things to celebrate every day. Two years ago, the state welcomed its first Black-owned drive-in movie theater in Newark, the first one in operation since the 1960s. That same year, Jersey City celebrated the appointment of Joyce Watterman to Council President, the first African American woman to hold the title in the city’s history. At the top of this year, a third-generation Jersey City firefighter honored his grandfather, the first Black man to join the city’s fire department, by making a little history of his own: getting promoted to Battalion Chief. This past spring, the New Jersey County Bar Association elected the first Black president in its 124-year-history, Englewood native and Hackensack’s Foy & Seplowitz law firm partner, Jason E. Foy. 

“I’m the 124th president, the first person of any color. Now that I’m here, I want to make an impact. And the impact that I’m trying to make goes beyond the surface of my skin…It’s got to be more than I’m the first Black president. I want to really make us better and more inclusive as an organization. And when I leave I will look behind me and I know I will see Muslims and Koreans [etc.] who are attorneys and are a part of that organization,” Foy told reporters.

Now New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has signed a new bill that will commit $1 million in government funds towards the development of the Black Heritage Trail, a new project aimed at preserving the stories of Black trailblazers in the Garden State. Introduced in January 2021, the initiative was spearheaded by elected officials and cultural institutions who want to make sure New Jersey’s Black history is remembered. The life and legacy of African-American pioneers in the state will be celebrated, with a specific emphasis on trailblazers in New Jersey’s social, cultural, and political sectors. 



Included in the trail will be landmarks, museums, and other heritage sites that give context to the pertinent historical contributions. The entire trail will be featured on a downloadable trip itinerary, and the state will make sure historical markers are placed at each of the sites along the trail. Sites will be chosen by members of the New Jersey Black Cultural and Heritage Initiative Foundation and the New Jersey Historical Commission will be responsible for giving “special consideration to sites that are in close geographic proximity, thematically linked by surrounding arts and other tourism destinations, or recommended by the Foundation,” a statement via New Jersey’s state website reads. 

According to Bill Track 50, the mission of the Foundation is to “deepen and diversify state-wide participation and appreciation for Black arts, history, and culture.” The foundation is comprised of a group of organizations and institutions all working in tandem to “increase awareness of and appreciation for” the cultural contributions of Black Americans, expand participation in Black cultural and heritage programming, and invest in future generations of Black artists and historians.

Both funded through state legislation, the New Jersey Historical Commission has a similar mission, serving residents of New Jersey through the documentation of natives’ contributions over the course of more than three centuries. 

“The New Jersey Historical Commission (NJHC) is a state agency dedicated to the advancement of public knowledge and preservation of New Jersey history. Established by law in 1967, its work is founded on the fundamental belief that an understanding of our shared heritage is essential to sustaining a cohesive and robust democracy. The NJHC receives its funding primarily by legislative appropriation. It fulfills its mission through various initiatives, as well as an active grant program. The goal of the grant program is to engage diverse audiences and practitioners in the active exploration, enjoyment, interpretation, understanding, and preservation of New Jersey history. In addition to other awards and prizes, the NJHC offers a free archival evaluation service called Caucus Archival Projects Evaluation Service (CAPES),” a statement on the NJ state site reads. 

The bill for the Black Heritage Trail was backed by several state officials including Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Senator Troy Singleton, and Senator Michael Testa. Governor Murphy signed the bill allocating the $1 million to the project this past week. 

“I am honored to sign this bill today, establishing a Black Heritage Trail in New Jersey. However, our work does not stop here. Celebrating and commemorating Black history is not something that we should relegate to only the month of February or to Juneteenth. Black history is New Jersey history. It must be honored every day of the year,” Murphy said during the signing of the bill. 



“The Black Heritage Trail will highlight major historical contributions of Black Americans and the events that helped shape our state. There are many stories in New Jersey’s Black culture that need to be told.  New Jersey played a significant role in the Underground Railroad that helped enslaved Blacks in the southern U.S. escape to freedom in the north.  In addition, many Blacks became permanent residents of the state during the Great Migration of southern Blacks into northern cities after World War I.  I applaud Governor Murphy for signing the bill to create this trail and focusing more attention on the significant contributions of Blacks to New Jersey’s history,” said U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne.

Senator Singleton echoed those sentiments, saying, “For nearly 400 years, Black Americans have been part of New Jersey’s history. Black heritage and history has, for far too long, gone underrepresented and untold despite our contributions to industry, culture, and arts. The purpose of this new law establishing the Black Heritage Trail is to promote and honor these achievements through education, public programs, and historical markers.” 

Lately, there has been a renewed interest in preserving the nuances of Black history, with historians like New York’s Eric K. Washington traveling all over their states to uncover the lost history and work with local organizations to convince state officials to preserve it. While major historical sites of violence or atrocities are more likely to receive historical status, preserving other mundane aspects of Black life, like schoolhouses or certain landmarks is much harder.

“One of the challenges we face in preserving African-American historical sites is expanding the historical understanding beyond the stereotype of racial violence with agency for the Black community. But that is most important in confronting America’s past,” said Brent Leggs, Senior Vice President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Lately a lot of that history worth preserving has been at outdoor sites like the ones along the Black Heritage Trail. In October 2021, Openlands, a Chicago-based nature conservancy launched their “African American Heritage Water Trail.” The 29-mile route follows the path of Chicago’s 109-mile Little Calumet River to highlight the important role the waterway played in the Underground Railroad. The trail had been more than two decades in the making, aquatic ecologist Laura Barghusen mapping out the idea for a canoeing and kayaking trail that offered 10 different waterways in the 1990s. 

“We started thinking about how to offer guided trips or cleanups, events that people could join without having a boat. We also started thinking about other ways to attract people to the waterways,” said Barghusen. 

A similar trail exists in Canada, the 559 miles long Bruce Trail, one of the oldest and longest continuous trails in the country. The trail extends from the Niagara River through Southern Ontario all the way to the Bruce Peninsula. More than 100 years ago, it was the last stop on the Underground Railroad; most recently, a Trent University student set out to become the first Black woman to complete The Bruce Trail since the Underground Railroad passages.

Now New Jersey is laying their claim to the whole of Black history. Derek Davis, board member for the Camden County Historical Society and the NJ Black Heritage Foundation said it would be a historical shame for the state not to. 

“If we omit this history, it is as if we are looking at ourselves with just one eye. We as a people and nation have too long been selective in how we understand and talk about history. This reservoir of information and its public acknowledgment will teach us who we once were and can contextualize who we are, pointing us towards a better shared future,” said Davis.  

No word yet on when the trail will officially open but we’re excited!

New Jersey is honoring Black history with a $1 million Heritage Trail. Photo Courtesy of Phaedra Trethan/Courier-Post/USA Today