black church that stood on Rutgers-Newark property designated a National Historic Site for its Underground Railroad ties | Rutgers University
Once a center for some of Newark’s early black activists, a 19th-century church on the property of Rutgers University of Newark has been designated a National Park Service Historic Site for its ties to the Underground Railroad. It is one of the first sites in northern New Jersey to receive this designation.
The colorful Plane Street Church has been accepted by the park service’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Network. The church’s congregation, located on what is now Frederick Douglass Field, played a vital role in the fight against slavery, raising funds for freedom seekers, and hosting prominent lectures radicals such as Frederick Douglass, who spoke there in 1849. Rutgers-Newark renamed the ground in his honor in 2019.
Noelle Lorraine Williams, a historian and Rutgers-Newark graduate who wrote and researched the park’s request for service, said the designation is an important recognition of the church’s role as a hub of the abolitionist movement.
“Very few sites are nationally recognized by the federal government as being connected to the Underground Railroad. We are one of the first 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 are now major contributors to African American history in the United States”
Williams, who is also an artist, learned about the church’s history while researching her multimedia project, “Black Power!” 19th Century,” which focused on Black Newarkers’ efforts 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, Douglass’s great-great-great-grandson.
Plane Street Church, dedicated in 1835, was a cornerstone of Newark’s black community, serving not only as a place of worship but also as a school, assembly hall, and conference hall. It was also a driving force in New Jersey’s anti-slavery movement.
“The church has a very special, layered connection to the Underground Railroad,” Williams said. “Teachers and clergy include national luminaries like the editor of the nation’s first national African-American newspaper and a Reverend accused of having The Denmark Vesey Conspiracy, considered the most comprehensive conspiracy in the history of the states United to overthrow slavery.
An underground railroad station was located only a few yards 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 stories,” Williams said.
The church also served as the foundation for contemporary Newark politics. “The NAACP, Urban League has 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 the UMDNJ in the late 1960s, attended the church,” she said.
When the church building fell into disrepair, the congregation moved in 1905 to Wickleffe Church, which later became 13th Avenue Church. The Plane Street building stood on a block that was part of Newark’s black community until the city condemned the buildings there.
From 1959 to 1967, redlining and a practice known as “slum clearance” displaced 12,000 African-American families from downtown Newark.
In 1967 Malcolm Talbott, provost of Rutgers-Newark, pushed to rename Plane Street to University Avenue, according to historian Jack Tchen, director of the Rutgers-Newark Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.
“These changes represented the release 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 historic designation and naming of the Douglass field are signs that Rutgers-Newark is reckoning with its past. “Universities traditionally don’t recognize the neighborhoods and previous occupants of the land they are razing and building up,” he said. “I commend our campus for heeding this systemic historical oversight and initiating the process of decolonizing Newark’s history.”
“New additions are fitting to welcome as we celebrate Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday,” said Diane Miller, National Program Manager of Network to Freedom.
“Like Harriet Tubman, the freedom seekers and allies highlighted in each Network to Freedom list remind us of what can be achieved when people take action against injustice.” “Each listing contains a unique piece of Underground Railroad history, and we look forward to working with members to amplify the power of these locations.”