Black Church that Stood on Rutgers-Newark Property Designated National Historic Site for Ties to Underground Railroad

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Watercolor Rendering of Plane Street Colored Church by Noelle Lorraine Williams

Once a center for some of Newark’s earliest Black activists, a 19th-century church that stood on Rutgers University—Newark property been designated a historic site by the National Park Service for its links to the Underground Railroad. It is one of the first sites in Northern New Jersey to receive that designation.

The Plane Street Colored Church was accepted to the park service’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Network. The congregation of the church, located on what is now Frederick Douglass Field, played a vital role in fighting slavery, raising money for freedom seekers, and hosting talks by radical figures such as Frederick Douglass, who spoke there in 1849. Rutgers-Newark renamed the field in his honor in 2019.

Noelle Lorraine Williams, a historian and Rutgers-Newark graduate who wrote and researched the park service application, said the designation is an important acknowledgement of the church’s role as a hub of the abolitionist movement. 

“Very few sites are recognized nationally by the federal government as being connected to the Underground Railroad. We are one of the first ones in North Jersey to receive this honor,’’ said Williams, director of the New Jersey Historical Commission’s African American History Program.  “Rutgers University and the City of Newark now stand as major contributors to African American history in the U.S.”

Williams, who is also an artist, learned of the church’s history while researching her multimedia project, “Black Power! 19th Century,’’ which focused on the efforts of Black Newarkers to organize against oppression since before the Revolutionary War. She wrote and researched the application, submitted by the university, at the suggestion of Kenneth B. Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Douglass.

The Plane Street church, dedicated in 1835, was a cornerstone of Newark’s Black community, serving not only as a place of worship but a school, meeting hall and lecture hall. It was also a driving force in New Jersey’s anti-slavery movement. 

"The church has a very special and layered connection to the Underground Railroad,’’ said Williams, a 2022 alumna of the MA in American Studies program at the Rutgers-Newark School of Arts and Sciences. “The teachers and clergy include national luminaries like the editor of the nation's first African American national newspaper and a reverend who was accused of taking part in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, believed to be the most comprehensive plots in the history of the United States to overthrow slavery.”

An Underground Railroad Station was located only a few feet away from the church, and Junius Morel, a teacher there, sent a freedom seeker from Newark to Albany. “This site is connected to radical people and histories,’’ said Williams.

The church also served as a foundation for contemporary Newark politics.“The NAACP, Urban League have roots  with this group of people,’’ she said. “Louise Epperson, who fought for the rights  and against the displacement of Black and Latinos during the building of UMDNJ in the late 1960s, attended the church,’’ she said.

When the church building fell into disrepair, the congregation moved in 1905 to the Wickleffe Church, which later became the 13th Avenue Church. The Plane Street building stood on a block that was part of Newark’s Black community until the city condemned buildings there.

From 1959 to 1967, redlining and a practice known as “slum clearance,’’ moved 12,000 African American families from Newark’s downtown core. In 1967, Malcolm Talbott, provost of Rutgers-Newark, pushed through the renaming of Plane Street to University Avenue, according to  historian Jack Tchen, Director of Rutgers-Newark Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.

“These changes represented the clearing of the original Plane Street neighborhood block-by-block to be replaced by campus buildings,’’ he said. The Golden Dome and Athletic Field, now Frederick Douglass Field, was built on the property in 1977.

Tchen said the historical designation, and the naming of Douglass field, are signs that Rutgers-Newark is reckoning with its past. “Traditionally universities do not acknowledge the prior neighborhoods and occupants of the lands they bulldoze and build on.’’ he said. “I commend our campus reckoning with this systemic historic forgetting and initiating the process of decolonizing the history of Newark.”

Diane Miller, national program manager of the Network to Freedom, praised the timing of the designation. "It’s fitting to welcome new additions as we celebrate Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday. Like Harriet Tubman, the freedom seekers and allies highlighted in each Network to Freedom listing remind us of what can be accomplished when people take action against injustice.''