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Supporter's Update on African Burial Ground Preservation Efforts in Bedminster

Basil Scaperdas, who has been instrumental in researching and helping to preserve a burial ground for area black residents, gives update.

A white marker that is believed to mark the border of the African Burying Ground in Bedminster. By Linda Sadlouskos
A white marker that is believed to mark the border of the African Burying Ground in Bedminster. By Linda Sadlouskos

Editor's Note: Basil Scaperdas, a Bedminster resident, has been instrumental in efforts to preserve the so-called African Burying ground,  which documents show was purchased for establishment as a cemetery around 1800 by two slaves and a free black beekeeper. Below is part of an update Scarpedas said he submitted the following update to a local chapter of the Morristown NAACP:


The following ordinance passed at the December 2, 2013 Bedminster Township Committee Meeting

Ordinance #2013-016 - AN ORDINANCE AUTHORIZING AND ACCEPTING THE MINOR SUBDIVISION AND CREATION OF THE PROPERTY IDENTIFIED AS BLOCK 28, LOT 1.01 IN THE TOWNSHIP OF BEDMINSTER, ALONG WITH AUTHORIZING THE DEED MEMORIALIZING SAME. This Ordinance subdivides a 66’ x 66’ portion of Block 28, Lot 1, also known as the Negro Slave Burying Ground (130 Hillside Avenue) making a new lot, preserving a historic area.

With no comments and a motion by Committeewoman Freeman, seconded by Committeeman Pane and a unanimous voice vote, the public hearing was closed.

On motion by Committeman Jacobs, seconded by Commiteewoman Santucci and a unanimous roll call vote, Ordinance #2013-016 was adopted.

The Bedminster Historical Preservation Commission prepared a draft of sign to be placed at the burial site around May/June 2014 (Note:  Bedminster Township sent an application for a grant to make the sign to the Somerset County Historical Society — approval is still pending.  Bedminster itself is not spending any money on this project):

African Burying Ground

1801

On June 22, 1801, three African American Men — one free Negro and two slaves — purchased one tenth of an acre of land from Aaron Melick for the sum of thee dollars to establish a burying ground for the “Black people in the Neighbourhood.”  This is the earliest known purchase of land by slaves for burials in New Jersey.  The free Negro’s name was Robert Aaron, a local bee keeper, and the two slaves were Aaron Melick’s Robert and Aaron Van Doren’s Yaff.

The burying ground is one square chain (66’ x 66’) bounded on the west by Hillside Avenue.  In his 1899 book “The Story of an Old Farm,” Andrew D. Melick, Jr. refers to the site as “God’s Acre.”

Erected by the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders 2014

As published in the Bernardsville News covering the Mayors speech at the Bedminster Township Reorganization meeting on January 6, 2014:

He praised the Historic Preservation Committee, under the leadership of Joan O’Reilly, for its work in “re-discovering” the 1801 slave cemetery at the former town hall property on Hillside Avenue. He said a marker will likely be placed there this year.

——

Mayor Steven Parker gave a speech after he was sworn-in as Mayor at the January 6 Bedminster Township Reorganization Meeting. One of the accomplishments he cited was the township's decision to recognize the historic significance of a slave buying ground that was established in 1801 at the location of the old Bedminster Town Hall on Hillside Ave. 

The Mayor only praised the Historic Preservation Committee and its leader, Joan O’Reilly, for its efforts in “re-discovering” the site.  He said a marker will likely be placed there this year. 

However, he did not mention the efforts of local historians and residents who made the burial ground an issue that needed to be addressed. Historian Thomas L. Buckingham of the Somerset County Historical Society did the initial research on the deeds that proved the sites existence. His research also placed into question the historical chain of ownership that lead to the 1935 construction of the old town hall on the historic cemetery. Mr. Buckingham went on to discover the names of eight black people buried there from 1840 to 1850 by locating the burial records of Bedminster's Dutch Reform Church.He also estimates that 40 to 50 people have been buried there since 1801. When Mr. Buckingham sent his findings in a letter to the Bedminster Township Committee in February 2013, a local resident who lives only feet away from the site, Mrs. Mary Jane Fennell, repeatedly kept trying to lobby the committee to designate the burial ground as a historic site and to assign the rest of the old town hall property for this purpose.  Despite her efforts Mrs. Fennell did not get the full attention of the committee until she received support from another local resident, and member of the NAACP, Basil Scaperdas, who was also attending town hall meetings in preparation for his run as the 2013 Democratic Party township candidate.  Mr. Scaperdas brought the issue to the attention of the Morris County chapter of the NAACP and their members showed up leading to a contentious town hall meeting that received lots of press coverage. Within a couple of weeks the committee had Mr. Buckingham present his findings to the public followed by the passing of a resolution to designate the tenth of an acre burial ground as historic.  Mr. Scaperdas also created a website dedicated to the preservation of this site,www.hillsidememorialcommittee.com. This site was used a reference by Bedminster's Historical Preservation Committee as they moved forward with their plans to get a grant for a metal sign that will mark the site.  Credit also needs to be given to another historian, Nancy Piwowar, of the Plainfield Historical Society, for discovering the will and testament of one the free black man, Robert Aaron, who bought the site along with two slaves in 1801 for the sum of $3. Through her work she determined that Mr. Aaron was also historically important as one of the first documented bee keepers of New Jersey.

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