New Name, More Information for 'African Burying Ground'

The Bedminster Historic Preservation Committee discusses what to engrave on plaque planned for site off Hillside Avenue.

A white marble marker topped with a cross is at edge of property now preserved as cemetery for black residents from centuries past. By Linda Sadlouskos
A white marble marker topped with a cross is at edge of property now preserved as cemetery for black residents from centuries past. By Linda Sadlouskos
Even on a hot summer afternoon, the small patch of now-mowed grass to be preserved as a burying ground for black residents who lived and died in Bedminster centuries ago has an air of quiet, cool remove from the rest of surrounding Hillside Avenue. 

But there has been plenty of activity lately by those planning how to commemorate the unmarked cemetery, including a new name chosen last week by the Bedminster Township Historic Preservation Commission — the "African Burying Ground."

That name was found in early 19th century records from Bedminster's Dutch Reformed Church, said Tom Buckingham, vice-president of the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission, and also vice-president of the Somerset County Historical Society.

Just last week, the township Historic Preservation Commission, meeting with Buckingham and others who are interested in the history of the site, announced that other research identified eight people buried at the location. The now-outlined 66-by-66-foot plot is at the front of a vacant parcel of township-owned land that previously housed Bedminster's municipal building until it was torn down in 2011.

The new name, followed by the subtitle of "God's Acre" and additional historical information, will be placed on a plaque being planned for the site.

Bedminster Mayor Steve Parker, who was at last week's commission meeting, said the first sign could be placed at the site next year. As of now, there are no markers or headstones on the site, other than a small rectangular white marble post on along a boundary with a surrounding home. The marble post is engraved with a cross.

Somerset County approves and pays for plaques designating historic sites, but this year's already have been chosen, Buckingham said. He said Bedminster Township should make an application for 2014.

The research into the site all began earlier this year when Buckingham said he read a reference to the cemetery in a book written around 1890 by Andrew Melick. Buckingham said he tracked down a deed from 1801 documenting the sale of a tenth of an acre of property by Aaron Melick, Andrew's great-grandfather, to a free black beekeeper and two slaves.

That $3 sale likely is the first purchase by purchase of land by black residents in New Jersey to set up their own burial ground, Buckingham told the commission last week.

Buckingham said this week that Robert Aaron, the beekeeper, apparently was a regarded member of the church. He said Aaron's will even left the sum of $200 to the Dutch Reformed Church, although the bequest was to be donated following the support of Aaron's wife, who outlived him.

It was a letter to Bedminster Township outlining Buckingham's discovery of the 1801 land sale — as well as support from neighbors such as Basil Scaperdas, with the backing of the Morristown NAACP, and Hillside Avenue resident Mary Jane Fennell that led to a resolution by the Bedminster Township Committee in June to dedicate and preserve the property.

Other local historians and members of the NAACP as well as nearby members of the black community are being drawn into supporting the preservation project — and already are being drawn to the site.

Peter Briggs, wife of Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, told the historic preservation commission last week that he already has brought two sets of students to visit the site, as well as another cemetery for black residents in Lamington.

Scaperdas said he eventually would like to see the burying ground as carefully preserved as the cemetery in Lamington.

For more information, please read "Slave Cemetery, 'God's Neglected Acre,' Commemorated in Bedminster."
Mary Jane Fennell July 26, 2013 at 07:53 AM
Thanks Linda. This article tells the entire story of this important site. While Mr. Buckingham and Nancy Piwowar, of Plainfield, continue to uncover important facts, it is my wish there will be more than a sign on the side of Hillside Avenue to commemorate this important place. Something similar to the Lamington Black Cemetery should be considered.


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