African American Museum Newly Opened on Hollow Road in Skillman — Is Among the First of Its Kind
A water color painting of the Mount Zion AME Church (by Martha Haude) on Hollow Road in Skillman. Prints are available to donors of $5,000 or more. To support the museum at a more affordable rate, sign-up to attend the February 22 Gospel Brunch fundraiser.
The historic Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Hollow Road is open as the Stoutsburg Sourland African-American Museum — by appointment only at this point.
In the near future, the one-room church house grounds will expand to include an education and cultural center, a traditional vegetable and medicinal garden, a parking lot for cars and buses, and office space.
“The purpose of this museum is to create awareness and educate the general public about the African American residents who lived in this region,” according to the museum website ssaamuseum.org.
The museum founders want people to know “who lived here in this unique community, how many rose up from slavery to be men and women whose labor helped create one of the wealthiest areas in New Jersey.”
African American museum founders: Beverly Mills (left) and Sharon “Elaine” Buck (right) with John B. Buck (who is also Elaine's husband).
A conversation with museum founders Sharon “Elaine” Buck and Beverly Mills, who are also co-authors of If These Stones Could Talk, led to the realization that most Montgomery area residents would be shocked to learn how pervasive slavery had been in our region.
For hundreds of years, school history books have left out the stories of African Americans in New Jersey.
Buck says she hopes news of the museum will generate interest for teachers to reserve time through the ssaamuseum.org website so students can visit.
Already, a Hillsborough 10th grade AP class has toured the museum. In April, students from Montgomery’s Village Elementary School’s will be visiting.
Within the next two years, SSAAM plans to build a cultural education center right next door to the small church to “give a snapshot of exactly what happened here in this region, as it fits into the whole national story,” Mills says. “We have artifacts but no room to display them.”
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The D&R Greenway Land Trust worked with the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum and the Sourland Conservancy to acquire 1.2 acres of land for their new headquarters and museum. Montgomery Township also played a large role in the transaction, purchasing nearly seven acres to preserve as permanent open space. This land is an important link between the AME Church and the new Sourland Conservancy / SSAAM property, and the township’s Bessie Grover Park.
Camp Meeting Avenue
This old avenue, just northwest of Montgomery High School, stretches a quarter mile from Fairview to Hollow Road. It was named after the camp meetings held annually to raise money for the Mount Zion AME Church on Hollow Road.
A writer for a now defunct publication called the Princeton Recollector interviewed people in the 1970s who attended the camp meetings.
“Tom Brophy was a farmer in Skillman on the corner of Camp Meeting Avenue and Hollow Road, by the brook,” Mills said, reading an excerpt of the Recollector. “He would donate his land every year, and folks would come from all over — from Princeton, Rocky Hill, Kingston, Pennington, Hopewell, Neshanic, Somerville, Belle Mead, and Trenton.
“And it wasn’t just colored people,” as the article said. “It was white folks, everybody included. Some would come by train, some picked up by horse and buggy.”
Sketch from the Princeton Recollector of a camp meeting that took place annually in Skillman.
This was annually, in July and August, from the 1890s until the early 1930s, Mills added. The article says an old slave was the boss the camp. “So we started researching and found a Mr. John Robinson who was an old slave who lived in Stoutsburg — which is local, but we are not sure exactly where he lived,” Mills said.
"Stoutsburg" is another historic community name, much in the same way as Blawenburg, Dutchtown, Belle Mead, and Harlingen are. Though, the latter were incorporated into Montgomery Township. Stoutsburg, though, was located along the border of Hopewell (Mercer County) and Montgomery (Somerset County), and Route 518 passes through the historic community from the east and west, and Province Line Road passes through north and south. Province Line Road follows the Keith line which formerly separated the provinces of West Jersey and East Jersey.
As a resident of Stoutsburg, Mr. John Robinson could have lived close to the church on Hollow Road, by Camp Meeting, Mills says.
Very little is known of the black families who lived close to the church museum on Camp Meeting Avenue. “Basically, most of the people are gone,” Mills said. “Priced out.”
Museum Founder Beverly Mills' family has deep roots in the Montgomery / Hopewell area. From left: Herbert Hubbard (Beverly's great-grandfather), Basil Hubbard, Sarah Matilda Hubbard (Beverly's grandmother with the big bow), and Leona Hubbard at Camp Meeting in Skillman.
While much is written, and many records collected at the Van Harlingen Historical Society about the Dutch who settled the Montgomery area, there are no records of the slaves they kept or of the native Lenni Lenape people of the region, according to Candy Willis of the society. (Willis took it upon herself to do some research and wrote an article that appears on page 17 of The Montgomery News' February issue.)
It is a well known fact the Dutch were big into the slave trade. With all the farms, or “plantations” the Dutch once had throughout the region, there is a story waiting to be told.
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“It’s just a seedling of an idea,” Mills says. “It’s preliminary, so we hesitate to say, but, telling the untold stories of these farms and these families could be our next project.”
A local family recently donated some old papers found in the attic depicting the black people they owned. The papers, and slaves, had been passed down through the generations.
“The donor and I have been friends for 40 years,” Buck says. “Her mother had died and she was cleaning. After throwing the papers across the room, and then wanting to burn them, my friend said she knew Bev and I would want them.”
“This is a story that is 400 years overdo,” Buck says. “If we don’t talk about these things, history repeats itself.”