New Executive Director Leads Montgomery’s African American Museum
By Rebecca Koblin | February 1, 2022
The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) on Hollow Road has a new executive director: Donnetta Johnson.
Johnson is a community and business leader in Hillsborough. She began her career as a pioneering Black woman in technology, working as a programmer and senior project manager at AT&T. She left her corporate career to pursue her passion for entrepreneurship as the founder and president of the Allegra School of Music and Arts in 1999. She is also the founder of the Hillsborough Music Festival, which promotes local businesses in partnership with government and the arts in support of youth mental health and suicide prevention.
The stories and histories of people of the African diaspora have always been of great importance to her, and she is excited to join the professional historians at SSAAM.
“We are in the process of going through a pretty major capital campaign to essentially raise the funds that will allow us to create the [Sourland Education and Exhibit Center],” she said.
Johnson said she is inspired by the museum’s founders — Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, authors of If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey.
“I was enlightened and fascinated by the history of this area that they shared [in their book]. I had no idea of the rich pre-revolutionary, slavery era, civil war era, and post-slavery history of the African American presence pretty much in my own backyard,” Johnson said. “I started to wonder about the inherent difficulties and joys of their lives as they related to work, families, and dreams.”
“As a theater producer with a passion for history and sharing stories that are largely unknown, I was thrilled when co-founder, Elaine Buck asked me if I might be interested in the executive director position for this amazing organization.”
Johnson said she is interested in history, particularly African and women’s history. “It became increasingly obvious to me I was not getting an accurate, complete, or fair depiction of historical truth,” she said.
“My interest in preservation came later as a teenager, as I helped my mother with our 1910 Brooklyn brownstone and learned to appreciate our natural environment while enjoying the majesty of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Prospect Park. I strongly believe it is important to respect and preserve the environments that allow us to thrive as a culture and as humans.”
Johnson’s responsibilities as executive director include fundraising, leading the organization towards fulfilling its mission of sharing the stories of the African American presence in the Sourland Region, and partnering with the Sourland Conservancy to engage the community.
The goal of the museum is to share the stories of African Americans who lived in the Sourlands region, what their lives were like, and their contributions to the area.
“Hopewell Valley, from pre-Revolutionary through the time of slavery, had a very vibrant African American community in the Sourlands, and really throughout [the entire] valley,” said Johnson. “Very few people today know or understand that this community existed here and contributed mightily to the development of the economy and the area.”
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The Mount Zion AME church opened its doors in 1866 and was organized by “African American residents, descended from free and enslaved people, who lived in the Sourland region,” according to the SSAAM website. The church remained in service for over 100 years, closing its doors in 2005. The museum was then created to protect the structure and tell the stories of the people who worshipped there.
Johnson attributes the absence of other African American museums in New Jersey to “a legacy of lost and marginalized history about Black communities.”
“I lived here for 35 years and I never understood that there was even slavery in this area,” Johnson said.
She credits her recent interest in local African American history to Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, and their book on local African-American history.
“This book has received quite a bit of acclaim and support. People are just incredibly interested that this history existed, that there was slavery in this area, that there were [African American] people in this region that participated in the Civil War, and again contributed mightily in their efforts, unpaid, to the economy and the early development of this area,” Johnson said.
Buck and Mills are currently working on the next edition of their book, titled Harmony and Hostility: A View From Sourland Mountain scheduled to be released this year.
This book will expand on the history in this area and dive deeper into stories passed down through generations of African Americans who resided in this region.
“Through their own rigorous efforts, research and scholarship, [they] uncovered more stories of the Sourland region’s African American community, including the stories of their own family members that go back centuries, to create this book,” Johnson said, “and what I am hoping is that more people will be inspired by what they did and start to honor their family histories in this region and continue to tell more important stories.”
The museum is currently closed but should be ready to reopen this year. Although the education and resource center is not expected to be complete for the next few years, the museum is undergoing its own restoration and renovation that will add Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) features to make it more accessible for people with disabilities.
SSAAM will be hosting celebratory virtual events during Black History Month, including a presentation by Cat Hogan on February 2, a performance by Dr. Daisy Century on February 6, a baking tutorial by Joanne Canady-Brown, owner and head baker at the Gingered Peach on February 16, and a celebration of the life of 101-year-old Evelyn Brooks on February 23.
“Understanding the broader untold history of this region is incredibly important. The path forward is of equal importance,” said Johnson. “Our mission includes sharing these untold stories and generating interest in our unique central New Jersey history within this beautiful Sourland region while celebrating our diverse communities with programming that creates a place for everyone.”
If you are interested in supporting the creation of the SSAAM education and resource center, you can visit ssaamuseum.org to make a donation. ■