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Black History NJ: The Underground Railroad

Though we often spotlight individuals in our Black History NJ stories, this time will be a bit different. That’s because the focus of this feature is on the role New Jersey played in the Underground Railroad. Of course, the Railroad was a network of people and places helping slaves escape during the mid-19th century. But many folks don’t know about the part NJ played in its success.

During its operation, heroic American abolitionists aided roughly 100,000 Americans in attaining their freedom. But even before that, NJ made its mark; in 1804, New Jersey passed an abolition law helping to free more than 12,000 slaves. After that, the state formally outlawed slavery in 1846. Since this was prior to the Civil War and the national abolition of slavery, New Jersey became a prime stop on the Underground Railroad’s routes.

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The Underground Railroad Runs Through New Jersey

As “conductors” ushered slaves along the Underground Railroad, those in need were given food, clothing, shelter, and transport. New Jersey became a rest stop and key access point along these lengthy routes. Then came the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, enabling southern “masters” to reclaim their escaped slaves. This made trips through the Railroad harder, with many runaways seeking refuge where they felt safest, like in New Jersey.

New Jersey was also an ideal spot for the Underground Railroad because of its many access points. While some came to NJ from Delaware by crossing the bay, others made their way into the state from Pennsylvania. Once here, many made the trek on foot from Cumberland County to Cape May County; thanks to aid from Lenape Native Americans, who lead them through swamps and bogs to avoid slave catchers.

Othello Church used by Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
This Church in Greenwich Township was a safe haven along the Underground Railroad.

In face, one of the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductors spent much time in the Garden State. Of course, we’re talking about Harriet Tubman. An abolitionist and activist in her adult life, Tubman was born into slavery in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. In 1849, she escaped slavery by fleeing to New Jersey. She then took a job as a cook in Cape May in the early 1950s, using her pay to help runaway slaves. She spent years working New Jersey’s Greenwich Line, learning the Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May counties’ routes. During her time as a conductor, she made 19 trips to the south and helped free over 300 slaves.

Aid Along Cape May County

Along with Tubman, Edward Turner used his resources to maintain stations and transport along the Underground Railroad. Turner – a free black landowner in Cape May County – used his remote woodland farm as a station for the railroad. While Turner settled into his duties in NJ, Tubman aided runaways in several other states as well as Canada.

Turner, with help from his family, aided runaways throughout the Civil War and until slavery was abolished nationally in 1865. In short, Cape May’s contribution to the Underground Railroad may not have the notoriety of routes like Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, or Boston’s; however, the state’s prime location offered many escaped slaves safe passage to freedom.

Top (Hero) Photo: © Smallbones / Wikimedia Commons
Other Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

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