Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Camden, NJ Monument to Where Slaves Were Sold
St. Augustine, Florida is struggling with contextualizing two Confederate veteran monuments. We need to do this at Government House and the Slave Market, and wherever lynchings and other hate crimes were committed.
CAMDEN, N.J. — It is a small marker, a cast-iron sign proclaiming in large gold letters the weight of America’s original sin: “Enslaved Africans Once Sold Here.”
The sign was unveiled on Monday in a park here, where the waters of the Delaware River once reached and where overcrowded ships arrived carrying people from Africa to be sold off as slaves.
“It means so much to me that folks get this truth,” Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, told the audience during a ceremony. “Slaves were sold. Right here. It’s part of our history. It must be remembered.”
The ceremony was organized by the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers project, which has been working for seven years to place markers at locations where Africans arrived in the United States and were sold into bondage. So far, 50 locations have been identified from Maine to Texas, according to the group. Of those, markers have been installed at 17 sites.
The three cast-iron markers that will be placed in Camden are the first to be installed since the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, which sparked a national debate over whether Confederate monuments on public display should be removed.
“Over the summer, so many of us remember watching TV and Charlottesville,” said Representative Donald Norcross, a Democrat, who also spoke at the ceremony. He quoted a line attributed to Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed during the protests in Charlottesville: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Derek Davis, a member of the board of the Camden County Historical Society, recalled being moved to tears by a speech Mr. Booker delivered shortly after the violence in Charlottesville in support of a bill he introduced to remove Confederate monuments from the halls of Congress.
Mr. Booker said the markers in Camden were especially important “at a time when people are trying to bring about revisionist history, they’re trying to take treasonous traitors and elevate them to high pedestals in our time, and try and tell a different truth — a lie — about our past.”
The markers here are the first to be placed by the Middle Passage project in New Jersey, which was the last state in the North to emancipate slaves before the Civil War. More than 800 slaves arrived along the Camden waterfront, according to the Camden County Historical Society, and New Jersey at one point had as many as 12,000 slaves. The first marker was placed at a site formerly known as Cooper’s Ferry.
For some at the ceremony, the markers were a counterpoint to Confederate monuments, whose presence has been denounced as paying tribute to those who defended and perpetuated slavery. The markers, according to the Middle Passage project, shine a light on the perseverance of an enslaved people against a brutal system.
“Personally, it is about the commemoration of ancestors,” said Ann Chin, the executive director of the Middle Passage project.
The project, a nonprofit established in 2011, has been using written evidence to identify places where Africans were brought to this country through the Middle Passage.
Like other marker ceremonies elsewhere, the one held here included local officials and historians, prayers from different faiths, singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and a libation, the ritual pouring of a liquid to commemorate the moment. Members of Native American tribes were asked for permission to place the marker in an area that was their ancestral home.
Students from a nearby school rose one by one to read the names of every country in Africa and then placed a flower in a basket that would be floated down the river, a tribute to the 12 million who died during the Middle Passage.
“Democratic Republic of the Congo,” began the first student.
“Ase,” the crowd responded, uttering a West African expression meaning “and so it is” or “amen.”
Every country was recited, Ms. Chin said, because many African-Americans do not know where their ancestors were taken from.
The ceremony began with a poem, titled “Camden Slave Block,” read by Sandra Turner-Barnes, another member of the historical society’s board.
“Much more than merely flesh and bone was paraded and sold here upon this stone,” she said. “The hearts and souls of our African nations, the hopes and dreams of our future generations valued less than cattle or other livestock, purchased right here on Camden slave block.”
She finished her poem with a call for healing. Mr. Booker lead the audience in a standing ovation, as Ms. Turner-Barnes made her way to her seat, wiping away a tear and patting her heart.