By Candace Kelley
In New Jersey, slaves ran to safe houses like the Belcher Ogden Mansion in Elizabeth. Historians say the home was part of a large, hidden system of Underground Railroad stations throughout the South and the North. According to Steal Away, Steal Away: A Guide to the Underground Railroad in New Jersey, between 30,000 and 50,000 slaves passed through it.
The routes of the Underground Railroad were not written down. Historian Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps says the slaves moved by faith, especially in the face of the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850 — the law allowed local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners. Penalties could be imposed on anyone who helped the slaves.
“You had to be able to read people very well in order to successfully make the journey which would be in some cases thousands of miles on foot,” Epps said.
They sought refuge in hiding places like attics and would escape by tunnels that are now sealed.
“There was a walkway that went from this property all the way down past Elizabeth Avenue behind the buildings there to the tributary of the Elizabeth River,” explained Tracey Parham of the Elizabeth Historical Society.
“There were four routes, major routes in New Jersey that depended upon crossing the Delaware River and crossing the Hudson River going into New York and making their way up into New England,” said Epps.
Legendary Abolitionist Harriet Tubman lead 300 slaves to freedom. And during the summers of 1849 through 1852, she worked as a cook in Cape May and used the money she earned to help finance her trips.
Tubman often found herself in the underground passageways of First Presbyterian Church in Newark. Epps says back then, New Jersey was known as “the slave state of the North.”
“It’s the southern most northern state so it was really in the middle of the struggle between North and South. The state did not carry Lincoln in either election,” Epps said.
Known as “the last stop” before New York was a home built by banker David Lee Cain Holden in 1854. He and his cousin Edward Singleton Holden were active abolitionists. Historians believe that this home is the only piece left of the Jersey City Underground Railroad. It was known as New Jersey’s “last station” on the Underground Railroad before going to New York.
“They worked the docks in Jersey City and ferrying fugitives across the river,” said Epps.
Epps says that people should be reminded of the living history that shows how slaves and black and white abolitionists helped create the state that we know today.
“We are our history, we keep forgetting that. That we are the sum of all of those who came before us,” she said.
And those who came before us, she says, were brave enough to fight for something that they believed in.