In 1926, African American historian Carter G. Woodson, one of the first scholars to study African American history and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, announced the second week of February would henceforth be known as “Negro History Week”. Woodson chose February specifically to honor Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both born in that month. In February, 1970, the commemorative week was changed to become a month long celebration of African American heritage. Thus, each year, we remember and honor accomplished African Americans who have contributed to our nation’s history and culture. We are well familiar with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, and others we have encountered in our history books, but there are other, lesser known African American trailblazers, some from New Jersey, that deserve to be remembered.
Doctor James Still (1812-1885), known as the “Black doctor of the PInes”, was a self-taught physician who mastered the healing power of herbs and plants. After apprenticing under a white physician, Still established his own practice in Medford, New Jersey. Thanks to Dr. Still’s example, his son, James Thomas Still, completed formal medical training and graduated from Harvard School of Medicine in 1871.
Doctor Still’s brother, William Still (1821-1902), born a free man in Burlington County, established a network of safe houses and contacts along the Underground Railroad from South Carolina to New Jersey. Still authored Underground Railroad, an abolitionist account of the freedom network detailing his interviews with hundreds of slaves fleeing North. In one interview, Still discovered the slave he was speaking with was his own brother whom he had not seen since childhood.
Born in Atlantic City, noted painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was the first black American artist to be featured in major commercial gallery. Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) of Camden County, was an African American writer and editor of Crisis, the publication of the NAACP. Florence Spearing Randolph (1866-1951), raised in Jersey City, was among the first African American women licensed to preach and serve as a church pastor. For twenty-one years, she was pastor of the Wallace Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Summit.
Closer to home in our area, American jazz pianist and composer, William James “Count” Basie (1904 – 1984), was raised on Mechanic Street in Red Bank and attended Red Bank public schools. In 1958, Basie became the first African-American male recipient of a Grammy Award. Red Bank’s Count Basie Theater is, of course, named for him.
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- MT. HOLLY SPRINGS, Pa. (WHTM) — A Cumberland County community is pushing to save a church built by a freed slave and Civil War veteran.
Octogenarian Harriet Gumby’s grandfather, Elias Van Buren Parker, built the small church known as Mount Tabor AME Church in the 1870’s. It sits along the hills of Mount Holly Springs in a quiet, wooded area.
“My mother’s father came up from Virginia in the 1400’s and found this little settlement in Mt. Holly Springs,” Gumby said. “He built a church here for the black families that came before him and after him.”
The church and its cemetery have been listed by a state preservation group as an “at-risk” site. That means the site is now eligible for grant money that may help with repairs. A small, dedicated group of Harriet’s community have already begun work to fix up the property, spending the last year tending to the cemetery and clearing away brush from the church, including vines of poison ivy.
“The one wall is being held up essentially by vines, but it is still in place and it has been for a very long time. We have great hope that we can do something with the structure,” said Lindsay Varner, the community outreach director for Cumberland County Historical Society.
Varner helped to apply for the “at-risk” listing with Preservation Pennsylvania in an effort to get official recognition for the site’s historical value. With help from the state, the small community group hopes to create a community space to honor the sites African American history. At least seven soldiers are buried on its grounds, including some that served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Carmen James attended Mount Tabor AME Church from the time she was 6 years old until around the time it closed its doors in 1970.
“It looks a little rugged, doesn’t look like it’s loved, but it is loved,” James said. “When you touch it and you think of the hands that built the church, the rich history – if this church could talk.”
To learn how to help with the preservation of this site contact the Cumberland County Historical Society at 717-249-7610. You can also click here to visit their website.