Sunday, June 19, 2016

African Burying Ground Commemorative Marker Dedication - June 20, 2016

African Burying Ground Commemorative Marker Dedication
Monday, June 20, 2016

The Bedminster Township Committee, the Township's Historical Commission, and the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission cordially invite you to join us for the unveiling of a marker commemorating the African Burying Ground, located at 130 Hillside Avenue, Bedminster Township, NJ at 6:30 pm.

On June 22, 1801, three African American men – one free negro and two slaves – purchased one tenth of an acre of land from Aaron Mellick for the sum of three dollars to establish a burying ground for the “Black people in this Neighborhood.” 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 beekeeper, and the two slaves were: Aaron Mellick’s Robert and Aaron Van Doren’s Yaff.

The burying ground is one square chain (66’ x 66’) - bounded on the west by the Hillside Avenue. In his 1889 book The Story of an Old Farm, Andrew D. Mellick, Jr. refers to the site as ‘God’s Acre.’

The property was originally part of the Mellick homestead that had been in the same family for 142 years. It is bordered on the north by the former Schomp’s mill pond and the North Branch of the Raritan River. At that time, the area was known as the Lesser Cross Roads and Hillside Avenue was the main road between Somerville and Peapack. John Mellick, who had purchased the property in 1751, was a slave owner and operated a tannery with a water-powered bark mill on Peapack Brook. His stone house, which still exists, was made famous in the book The Story of An Old Farm, or Life in New Jersey in the Eighteenth Century, written by Andrew D. Mellick, Jr. in 1889.

In earlier times, African-Americans burials were not permitted in church burying grounds or cemeteries. Instead, Slaves and Free Blacks were often buried in unmarked graves. It was therefore interesting that a search of the Somerset County land records turned up an 1801 deed for a negro burial site. Aaron Mellick, John Mellick's son and owner of the property at the time, sold a tenth of an acre as a burying ground to three black men. The price was $3 -  $1 each.

Prior to the 1798 revision of the New Jersey slave code of 1714, which prohibited all Blacks from owning property, even freed backs were unable to own land. This transfer was unusual because two of the men were slaves. The deed reads in part:
This Indenture made the twenty second day of June in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred & one between Aaron Melick of Bedminster in the County of Somerset & State of New Jersey of the one part & Robert Aaron and Aaron Melick’s Rick and Aaron Van Dorn’s Zaff [Yaff], Blackmen & trustees for the Black people in this Neighbourhood of the other part.  Witness to this the said Aaron Melick for fair Consideration of the sum of three dollars.
The deed went on to explain:
Robert Aaron – Aaron Melicks Richard and Aaron Van Dorns Zaff [Yaff] Trustees for the Black people in the Neighborhood of Bedminster and their successors forever for the use & purpose of a burying Ground for the said Black people in said Neighborhood.  
A local historian reported that grave markers were found on the site as late as 1900, but they had disappeared by 1915. Records from the Bedminster Dutch Reformed Church list at least eight burials at the site during the mid-nineteenth century and it is likely that other, unrecorded burials occurred in the early 1800's.

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