Slavery in New Jersey began in the early 17th century, when Dutch colonists trafficked African slaves for labor to develop the colony of New Netherland. After England took control of the colony in 1664, its colonists continued the importation of slaves from Africa. They also imported "seasoned" slaves from their colonies in the West Indies and enslaved Native Americans from the Carolinas.
Most Dutch and English immigrants entered the colony as indentured servants, who worked for a fixed number of years to repay their passage. As conditions in England improved and the number of indentured laborers declined, New Jersey's colonists trafficked more Africans for needed labor. To promote increasing the number of laborers and settlers in order to develop the colony, the colonial government awarded settlers headrights of 60 acres (24 ha) of land for each person transported to the colony. In 1704, after East Jersey and West Jersey unified, the Province of New Jersey passed a slave code prohibiting slaves and free blacks from owning property, further restricting African-Americans in the state.
During the American Revolution, enslaved Africans fought on each side. The British Crown promised freedom to slaves who would leave their rebel masters and fight for the British. The number of Blacks in Manhattan increased to 10,000, as thousands of enslaved Africans escaped to the British for the promise of freedom. The British refused to return the former enslaved to the Americans and they evacuated many Black Loyalists together with their troops and other Loyalists; they resettled more than 3,000 freedmen in their colony of Nova Scotia. Others were transported to England and the West Indies.
Bergen County developed as the largest slaveholding county in the state, in part because many enslaved Africans were used as laborers in its ports and cities. At its peak Bergen County enslaved 3,000 Africans in 1800, constituting nearly 20% of its total population. After the Revolutionary War, many northern states rapidly passed laws to abolish slavery, but New Jersey did not abolish it until 1804, and then in a process of gradual emancipation similar to that of New York. But, in New Jersey, some Africans were enslaved as late as 1865. (In New York, they were all freed by 1827.) The law made these Africans free at birth, but it required children born to enslaved mothers to serve lengthy apprenticeships as a type of indentured servant until early adulthood for the masters of their mothers kept in bondage. New Jersey was the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery completely. The 1860 census listed 16 people in New Jersey as slaves — almost certainly an underestimate, given that slaves were not meant to be recorded on regular census schedules. (Dedicated slave schedules, as recorded throughout the South in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, were not used in New Jersey.) However many enslaved people remained in New Jersey in December 1865 were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment.
The Underground Railroad had several routes crossing the state, four of which ended in Jersey City, where fugitive slaves could cross the Hudson River. New Brunswick, 'Hub City', was a main location where runaways would travel during the days of the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, African Americans served in several all-black Union Army regiments from New Jersey.
In 2008, the legislature of New Jersey passed a resolution of official apology for slavery, becoming the third state to do so. Rutgers, the State University moved to rectify its past wrongs and connections to slavery during its 250th anniversary celebration in 2016. Princeton University, the oldest college in the state of New Jersey, released the findings of its Princeton & Slavery Project in 2017.
In 2019, the Durand-Hedden House & Garden in Maplewood, NJ, created an extensive exhibit on the history of slavery in New Jersey. That exhibit was then developed into the book Slavery in New Jersey: A Troubled History, authored by Gail R. Safian, who is currently president of the Durand-Hedden House & Garden Association. The book was awarded the first-place Kevin M. Hale Publications Award by the League of Historical Societies of New Jersey and was chosen by The New Jersey State Bar Foundation as the basis of its curriculum section on slavery in New Jersey, part of a larger curriculum it developed for middle and high school students on African American history.
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