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Morris County Proclaims February 2024 Black History Month

County-Wide Survey of African American History Underway

MORRIS COUNTY — February 2024 was unanimously proclaimed Black History Month by the Morris County Board of County Commissioners recently, as an ambitious Morris County Historical Society effort continues to survey, document, and preserve the heritage of African Americans in Morris County.

“We encourage everyone to join us in recognizing and celebrating the important contributions African Americans have made to our society throughout history to support the success of our county and the United States,” said Commissioner Director Christine Myers.

Earlier this year, the Historical Society launched the county’s first survey of African American historic sites, making Morris County the second in New Jersey to undertake such a project, according to Amy Curry, Executive Director of the Historical Society.

The wide-ranging survey is being completed in four phases in four different county regions. The Historical Society’s goal is to complete one survey phase each year. Phase 1 is underway and focuses on an area that includes Chatham Borough, Chatham Township, East Hanover, Florham Park, Hanover, Harding, Long Hill, Madison, Morristown, Morris Plains, and Morris Township.

“The county is big and has significant African American history that spans its whole history, from pre-revolutionary to whatever we consider the recent past. As a museum, and having a collection with very few tangible objects to connect visitors to that history makes it more difficult to tell the history,” Curry said.

Included in the history of Morris County and the rest of the state is the stain of slavery, which only gradually ended in New Jersey starting in 1804 and culminating with a state constitutional amendment signed January 23, 1866, several months after the end of the Civil War.

Last year, Morris County rescued five historic documents related to the emancipation of slaves in the area – specifically local manumissions regarding five African American slaves living in Morris County. Manumissions are official, hand-written documents by which slave owners certified the freedom of individual African Americans held in bondage.

Joseph R. Klett, Director of the New Jersey State Archives, discovered the five Morris County documents were being advertised on the Internet last year for sale at a pending auction. Klett notified Morris County, which worked with the state to secure the return of the 19th Century manumissions.

The auction house and the estate of a private collector who had owned the documents for many years voluntarily provided them to Morris County once the county and state notified them that the documents were official public records belonging to Morris County. The documents are now being held in the Morris County Heritage Commission archives.

“This was an important find, and we are very thankful the state archivist acted quickly to help us secure these historical documents once they were found for sale online. We are also grateful to the auction house and the family of the collector, both of whom were understanding, cooperative, and responsive when we laid claim to the documents,” said Director Myers.

Beverwyck estate in Parsippany-Troy Hills operated as a plantation under owner William Kelly from 1759 to 1771.

To inspire more residents to participate in the African American history survey, the Morris County Heritage Commission provided a grant supporting three community engagement workshops hosted last year by the Historical Society and Sankofa Heritage Collective of Morris County, Morris County’s first Black historical society.

The survey was made possible through a grant awarded in December by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. The Historical Society, a member-supported 501(c)3 non-profit, secured another state grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to support its work.

The Historical Society has a collection of over 27,000 historic objects from Morris County. However, Curry said it became apparent that objects specific to local African American history were lacking when the collection was showcased during the Historical Society’s  75th Anniversary celebration and the 50th Anniversary of its ownership of Acorn Hall in 2021.

Local historic manumissions denoting the emancipation of five African American slaves living in Morris County.

That is when plans began to survey the county and Black history sites, including the people and the stories within those physical locations that make them significant.

To learn more about Black History Month, click here.

The Ties that Bind exhibition is currently on display at St. Elizabeth University until February 29th to commemorate Black History Month. 

Frank L. Cahill
Frank L. Cahill
Publisher of Parsippany Focus since 1989 and Morris Focus since 2019, both covering a wide range of events. Mr. Cahill serves as the Executive Board Member of the Parsippany Area Chamber of Commerce, President of Kiwanis Club of Tri-Town and Chairman of Parsippany-Troy Hills Economic Development Advisory Board.
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