With Help from Rutgers Experts, Statewide Reparations Council Will Hold Public Hearings
The New Jersey Reparations Council, co-chaired by Rutgers Law professor and Graduate School-Newark Dean Taja-Nia Henderson, will hold its second public hearing Monday night, an event that includes Rutgers experts discussing the state’s history and legacy of slavery and segregation.
The Council, convened in September by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, has been exploring the history and impact of slavery in New Jersey and will present its findings, along with recommendations for reparations, in 2025.
Part of the process is hearing from members of the public, who can weigh in at the live Zoom session on Monday and also through a portal on the council’s website. This is the second public meeting and will be focusing on segregation.
“I would love to encourage people to attend and participate in the public meetings and comment,” said Henderson, who specializes in research on the links between slavery and criminal law institutions. She co-chairs the council with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
The first public session featured Rutgers faculty and other historians sharing facts and stories about the overlooked history of slavery in New Jersey, where more than 12,000 people were enslaved by the 19th-century, often working on plantations and performing other hard labor.
Henderson stressed that it's especially valuable to hear from residents who can provide accounts of genealogical research and family stories of segregation in New Jersey. “Those individual family experiences make up the patchwork quilt that tells the story of slavery and the Black experience,’’ she said.
An important goal of the council is to raise awareness of the reality of slavery in New Jersey. Many residents don’t know slavery even existed in the Garden State. Those who do often believe that New Jersey was home to a “kinder, gentler” form of slavery, where the enslaved were mostly domestic workers and regarded as members of the family, said Henderson.
That’s not true.
“New Jersey was a slave state, and while we have for generations worked to whitewash that history with the stories that we tell ourselves and tell young people, we have to be able to grapple with that history, even if that history is hard,’’ said Henderson.
In New Jersey, royal proprietors from England, John Berkeley and George Carteret, for whom towns in New Jersey are named, offered settlers up to 150 acres of land for every enslaved person they owned. Slavery was central to the state’s economy and development, with the enslaved clearing forest, constructing buildings and creating the plantations on which they were forced to labor.
Slave-holders from the British Caribbean owned tobacco, corn and grain-producing plantations, which were similar to those that existed in the south.
Slave labor enriched many prominent New Jersey families but when New Jersey became the last Northern state to abolish slavery in 1866, the enslaved were left uncompensated.
Henderson added, “Racial disparities in New Jersey are difficult to explain if we are unwilling to look at slavery. The wealth disparity, the disparity in the criminal justice system, particularly in the youth justice system–where we have the most racially disparate system in the nation–aren’t just accidents.’’
At the first public hearing, two of the panel members, historians Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, founders of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Mercer County, spoke of ancestors who were enslaved in New Jersey, including Mills’ great great great great grandfather, who came to Hopewell from South Carolina as a 13-year-old boy after being purchased by a local pastor.
“It’s important we humanize this. These are people’s families. This is what happened to them,’’ said Mills.
Rutgers historian Leslie Alexander said it was also important to recognize that the institution of slavery was founded on a belief in white supremacy, that it was “ordained by God” for white people to own Black people as slaves.
In addition to completing research on slavery and how it has affected the lives of Black New Jerseyans today, the council will also examine different forms of reparations. But that will be a later stage in the organization’s work, said Henderson.
‘What should reparations look like? It should look like anything and everything to repair the harm,’’ said Henderson. “Right now, we’re articulating what that harm looks like.’’
Others at Rutgers-Newark, and universitywide, are serving on the council’s committees. They include Rutgers-Newark faculty members, such as historian Mark Krasovic, David Troutt, law professor and founder of the Center on Law, inequality and Metropolitan Equity (CLiME), and Timothy Eatman, Dean of the Honors Living-Learning Community and a professor of Urban Education.
Rutgers-New Brunswick faculty members include Alexander and Saladin Amber, a professor of Political Science. Other members are Camden-based law professor Kimberly Mutcherson and Denise Rodgers, Vice Chancellor for Interprofessional Programs at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS). Anna Branch, Rutgers Senior Vice President for Equity, is also a member.
“Rutgers is uniquely well-positioned to support an effort like this one, from the expertise of our faculty to the community relationships that have been built across the Rutgers system,’’ said Henderson. “There’s a wealth of resources and capacity that’s primed for an effort like this. I’m really proud that we are so well-represented on this Council and that Rutgers faculty have taken charge to do this work in service of our state.’'