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It happened here

Teaneck’s Enslaved African Memorial Committee shines spotlight on Bergen County’s history of bondage

Patricia Butler and Steve Fox sign a memorandum of understanding between the Enslaved African Memorial Committee and the Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee on cooperation between the groups seeking to build memorials in Teaneck.
Patricia Butler and Steve Fox sign a memorandum of understanding between the Enslaved African Memorial Committee and the Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee on cooperation between the groups seeking to build memorials in Teaneck.

It happened here.

That’s the message Teaneck’s Enslaved African Memorial Committee hopes to send, with a planned memorial to enslaved Africans on the green in front of Teaneck’s town hall.

And by here, they mean Teaneck, New Jersey, where enslaved Africans worked for white estate owners from the beginnings of European settlement in the 17th century through and past the middle of the 19th century. New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery, passing a gradual abolition act in 1804 that left people already enslaved to live out their lives as indentured servants. Not until the 13th Amendment became law in December, 1865, were the last 16 enslaved people freed.

“Most people across the spectrum don’t know there was slavery in New Jersey,” Patricia Butler said. “People don’t realize that Bergen County was the largest slaveholding county in New Jersey.”

Ms. Butler is the executive director of the Enslaved African Memorial Committee. She recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Teaneck Holocaust Memorial Committee. The Township of Teaneck has allotted space in the green in front of the town hall for the two memorials; money from the state has allowed them to run joint educational activities. Now, the memorandum of understanding allows them to work together on fundraising for the memorials, which will cost millions of dollars.

“We’re putting together a case for giving that will go out to various foundations, who see it as beneficial for our groups to be working together on this kind of project,” Steve Fox, co-chair of the Teaneck Holocaust Memorial Committee, said.

The area’s little known history of slavery comes to public attention from time to time, often when it is unearthed physically. In 2006, a developer excavating a plot along the Hackensack River unearthed bones from what turned out to have been a burial ground for Indians and enslaved Africans. The township bought the land and erected a plaque.

Ms. Butler, who has lived in Teaneck her entire life, learned none of this history in school.

“That’s why our work in the state is so urgent,” she said.

Much of the European settlement along the Hackensack River, and the accompanying slavery, goes back to Albrycht Zaborowski, who emigrated from Prussia (now Poland) to America in 1662.

His descendants, going by the name Zabriskie, built big homes on what is now River Road in Teaneck. “They were some of the largest slaveholders in Bergen Country,” Ms. Butler said. “It was a farm. The law then said that for every acre of land you purchase, you would get two slaves to work that land.”

New Jersey barred the importation of enslaved people in 1788. Still, in 1800, Bergen County had 3,000 slaves, a fifth of the county’ s population.

“It’s such an exciting and phenomenal history,” Ms. Butler said.

The more she has learned of this history, the more she has noticed its absence from public memory.

“The New Bridge Landing Historical Society has never included slavery in its programming,” she said. “The person I spoke to there didn’t even know there was slavery in New Jersey. We used to go swimming in the Teaneck Swim Club, not knowing that the vacant land right there was a burying ground. If you go by Bergen Community College, you can almost fall into the history. One day I was at this corner and it said Dunkerhook Road. Dunkerhook Road was a major community of freed African Americans.”

A piece of that history was demolished in 2012, when Paramus permitted the destruction of the Zabriskie Tenant House, constructed by a Zabriskie scion, and then rented out in 1820 to free African-Americans descended from people once enslaved by the family. That provided the seed of an African American community known as Dunkerhook, which lasted a century, into the 1930s.

“There’s a cemetery in Little Ferry that is a precious jewel,” Ms. Butler said. “It was one of the first burial grounds for African Americans from slavery to post-emancipation. It has some of the lead characters and personalities. There were enslaved Africans who fought in the Civil War and returned to bondage.”

“Part of the mission of of the memorial is to share these stories, so people have a better idea of who we are as a nation,” she said.

Already, with help from state grants, Ms. Butler’s group and the Teaneck Holocaust Memorial Committee have run joint programs, including screening a documentary about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the Holocaust survivor and civil rights leader. “We’re looking to do programming in the schools that would apply to both groups,” Mr. Fox said. “We have a lot of moral support from our community. There are many rabbis who approve of the project and love the idea. At the same time, we need people in the community to step up and give significant contributions.”

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