LITTLE SILVER – An overflow crowd of almost 75 people at the historic Parker Homestead listened to author and County Historical Commission member Joe Grabas describe his research into the under-acknowledged history of slavery in Monmouth County Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16.
Controversial and occasionally disputed, local historians say slavery was prevalent in Monmouth County – even among Quakers like the Parker family – from the county’s founding through most of the 19th century.
Keith Wells, president of the Board of Trustees for the Parker Homestead addressed the matter as he introduced Grabas to the crowd gathered in the 1795 barn at the historic property.
“Many people visiting The Homestead ask if the early Parkers were slave holders. Joe Grabas is the expert. His research indicates that members of the extended Parker family owned slaves. However, it is unclear to us at this time that slaves actually worked at The Homestead. We continue to research this important subject.”
With that, Grabas kept the crowd intently tuned to revelations from his many years of research into property records. Grabas owned a title search company; during his career, he discovered hundreds of documents illuminating the story of enslaved people.
He noted the importance of land records and their connection to slavery with a quote from John Steinbeck: “If a man owns a little property, that property is him…and some way he’s bigger because he owns it.” Because enslaved peoples, and later free blacks, were prohibited from owning land, their struggle to rise above their conditions took longer than it should have, according to Grabas and other scholars.
Grabas’s book, “Owning New Jersey” details the remarkable saga of Jake Brown, an African-American man living in Fair Haven when the author met him years ago. “This dignified, almost 100-year-old man had served in World War I and lived most of his life on Brown’s Lane in Fair Haven,” said Grabas. That property was granted to Brown’s grandfather by Jacob Corlies, a white man, in 1830, decades before the official abolition of slavery – a seeming anomaly. But, in fact, the land transfer was a direct result of the 1804 New Jersey Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The Act stated that black males born after July 4, 1804 were free but could purchase land only after they reached 25 years of age. Brown’s grandfather, also named Jacob, was one of the first to do so along the peninsula.
When he was an undergraduate – he is currently pursuing his master’s in history – Joe Grabas studied under the tutelage of Richard Veit of Monmouth University. Describing his student, Veit noted, “Joe has incredible skills as a researcher and has already made major contributions to the understanding of slavery in New Jersey.”
Much of the information Grabas presented to the crowd in the old barn on a particularly hot, late summer day concerned how entrenched slavery was in pre-Civil War New Jersey society. Quakers were not the only slaveholders. Early Dutch farmers throughout New Jersey enslaved Africans.
Though New Jersey declared that “All men are free and independent” in its second state constitution of 1844, the State Supreme Court interpreted that as meaning only “white men.” New Jersey was one of the last four states to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, in January 1866.
Several who listened to the Grabas revelations had personal connections to his stories. Bill Martin, now residing in Red Bank, recalled that he was “probably the first white guy to live on Brown’s Lane when I bought a house there in 1974.” He said he knew a woman in Jake Brown’s family, Mildred Keys, who owned an ice cream parlor in Atlantic Highlands.
Jean Thomas grew up on River Road in Fair Haven in a house which her 96-year-old father, Raymond Taylor still calls home. Listening to Grabas describe the hardships of African-Americans, she said she felt moved, and shed a few tears at first, but felt thankful for the account.
“The most surprising revelation to me was that the people at that time followed those laws for so long,” Thomas said. “I am an African-American, a woman and an educator. But, I am also human. We can learn from the past and work to make the world a better place for all people.”
This article was first published in the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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