SKILLMAN, NJ(PIX11) – It was early on in her childhood that Elaine Buck recognized that something wasn’t right with the way history was being taught at her school.
“Just from the images I was seeing with the black sambo and the big red lips and the lady with the head scarf— the way Black people looked like they were happy to be serving white people,” she recalled.
Buck, along with her longtime friend Beverly Mills, grew up in Hopewell Township- a small, predominantly white town in Central New Jersey.
“We never learned that there was slavery in New Jersey,” Mills said. “You are walking in an area, living in an area, growing up in an area where enslaved people walked before you.”
The women, now both historians, wound up making some history of their own. In 2006, they successfully stopped a developer from paving a driveway over an unmarked African American burial ground in a nearby town.
That catapulted the two into digging into the community’s long lost African American history.
Over the course of a decade, the duo compiled research, shared their discoveries with local schools and eventually published a book called, “If these stones could talk.” It outlines African Americans’ journey in central New Jersey.
“Without this free labor, where would this very wealthy central New Jersey be?” Mills questioned. “It’s not a Black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s our American history and you have to know it.”
Throughout their journey, these “history detectives” received town artifacts from complete strangers
“We have people that come up to us and say ‘first of all, I know the name of the people you were talking about and second off, here is something that I think you might want because it’s connected to your work,’” Buck said. “We then thought we need a place to house this.”
That place would became the quaint Mount Zion AME church in Skillman, which no longer holds services. It is now home to Mills and Buck’s historic treasures. In 2018, they opened the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum.
The museum, which has been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, is currently under renovation and gearing up for a grand reopening this spring.
And despite a divisive social and political climate drawing lines in the sand of what should be taught inside a classroom, these historians say they will forge ahead with their mission.
“We are not going to be silenced,” Mills said. “We are not going to pull back from our story because someone might feel offended or hurt.”
Special thanks to the Sourland Conservancy, the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, and filmmaker, Nick Christoff, for sharing footage from their film, SSAAM: An American Story, to provide insight into the role of the Museum in increasing understanding and facilitating the healing process in this community – especially relevant during this critical time in our nation’s history. The full video may be viewed at www.youtube.com/c/SourlandConservancy.
- Sourland Conservancy website – www.sourland.org
- SSAAM Website – https://www.ssaamuseum.org/
- Nick Christoff- https://nickchristoff.com/