February is Black History Month. This event began as Negro History Week in 1926, created by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and soon spread around the country via community organizations. By the late 1960s, fueled by the Civil Rights Movement, this had grown into a full month of events in many areas by the 1960s. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized for the national government Black History Month, stating the purpose was to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
In schools and communities across the country, we take this time to recognize and highlight the history and the accomplishments of African-Americans.
Here are some places to hike and to visit here in South Jersey this month. You can click on the title of each section to see our own adventures to these places.
So who was Dr. James Still and why does he have a historic site? Dr. Still was the son of a pair of former slaves (one bought his freedom, the other ran away from her master), born in 1812. Despite his poverty, the racist attitudes of the day, and having little in the way of formal education, Dr. Still taught himself how to create medicine out of plants and herbs and apply it to heal people. While he was never allowed to formally become a doctor through an institute of higher learning, he saved many lives in his years of service, earning the title “The Black Doctor of the Pines” through respect for his fine work, which often cured people after “regular” doctors had failed.
He was hugely successful, becoming quite wealthy with a prosperous practice and a great deal of land. Dr. Still built an office and house in Medford, the site of which is now a state park dedicated to preserve his memory and his office building (the house is long gone). This is the first state park in New Jersey to honor an African American.
Inside of the education center, you’ll find the story of Dr. Still, of the Underground Railroad (and William Still, Dr. Still’s younger brother, who was a key leader of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia), and of early medicine.
Outside is a 3/4 of a mile nature trail through Dr. James Still’s old property. Check out their website for more info and times that the Education Center is open. I also highly recommend finding a copy of Dr Still’s autobiography , Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still, which is once again in print thanks to Stockton University Press.
Historic Smithville Park in Burlington County has 4 miles of beautiful trails, the historic Hezekiah Smith mansion, and some pretty crazy history (why yes, it does include a moose pulling a carriage and a bicycle railroad).
One of the buildings in Smithville village is home to the Underground Railroad Museum of Burlington County. This museum contains a wide range of exhibits detailing the history of slavery (both inside and outside of New Jersey) and of the Underground Railroad in South Jersey.
Saddler’s Woods is a beautiful patch of forest with some amazing old growth trees, which makes it well worth a visit anytime. But this patch of woods, along with the adjacent Saddlertown section of Haddon Township, has a unique history.
It was bought by escaped slave Joshua Saddler. Saddler gained his freedom and worked for a Quaker on the nearby Croft Farm in Cherry Hill, saving enough money by 1842 that he purchased this land. The area became Saddlertown, a town settled by free Blacks. When Joshua Saddler died, his will stated that “… but in no instance to commit waste by cutting the timber growing thereon or otherwise…” The end result? Some of the oldest trees in Camden County stand in this little patch of woods.
The community of Saddlertown, centered around the Rhoads Temple United Methodist Church that is still active to this day, celebrates its history each September during Historic Saddlertown Day, which is open to the public and well worth attending.
As a bonus, here are a few other (non-hiking) spots you can visit in honor of Black History Month…
Why stop at this old home in Lawnside? Well, Peter Mott was a special person. He was a very successful free African American man from an era where that was a very difficult achievement. He was a self-made man who became a well off property owner. He was a minister and a Sunday School Superintendent. He built what is now the oldest house in Lawnside. He was one of the architects of the town known as Snow Hill (or Free Haven), which became Lawnside.
But it was the secret that Peter Mott kept that makes his house so important to visit – he and his wife used it to help escaped slaves make it to freedom in the Northern states or Canada. The Peter Mott House was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Not only was it a stop, it’s the rarest of preserved stops – a stop on the Underground Railroad owned by an African-American in an African-American community.
So stop and visit the Peter Mott House/Lawnside Historical Society on a Saturday. For more details, check out their website.
African American Civil War Veterans
Throughout South Jersey are cemeteries filled with veterans from the many wars that this country has fought. Among the least appreciated are the African American veterans of the Civil War (due in part to their service with national units instead of state units, but also due in no small part to the same forces in society that took a generation of African American veterans from a position in marching in Lincoln’s funeral procession and being seated in the halls of Congress to being stripped of their rights), without whom the North would have been very hard pressed to defeat the Confederacy. If you are really interested in this topic, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of Joseph Bilby’s Forgotten Warriors: New Jersey’s African American Soldiers in the Civil War.
There are dozens of places where African American veterans of the Civil War are buried, but here are two in particular…
Mt Peace Cemetery – Lawnside, NJ – one of the largest African American cemeteries in the state, this cemetery has dozens of Civil War veterans buried in it, including Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Lawson.
Timbuctoo – Westampton, NJ -Timbuctoo (named for that legendary city of Timbuktu in the Empire of Mali) is in Westampton, Burlington County. This was the site of a free African American community before the Civil War (where it served as a stop along the Underground Railroad), and existed until people moved away while looking for work in the 1930s.
There isn’t much left of this town other than this cemetery, which is the final resting place for a number of Civil War veterans. To learn more about Timbuctoo, check out the historical society dedicated to it or stop by to read the history at the cemetery – https://timbuctoonj.com/