Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project Commemorates Neighborhood Sites

0

The borough celebrates Juneteenth by unveiling the first of its historic markers in the neighborhood formerly known as “The Point.”

By Matt Skoufalos | June 19, 2024

Preserving Black Haddonfield History supporters are recognized by a proclamation from the office of U.S. Congressman Donald Norcross. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Few South Jersey communities are as knowledgeable and proud about their roots as Haddonfield is.

Founded in 1713, the community of some 12,500 was established as a Quaker enclave that is home to the second-oldest volunteer fire company in the country, a crossroads of the American Revolution, and a site where early, intact dinosaur skeletons were recovered.

Yet for as much as is known about the roots of the community and its historical significance to the state of New Jersey and the country itself, precious little is recounted about the contributions of its Black residents to those moments.

For the past two years, however, a committed group of Haddonfield Memorial High School alums have partnered with the borough Historical Society and local high-schoolers to unearth those narratives.

“We’re laymen who have passion for preserving history,” strategic communications specialist C. Adrienne Rhodes said.

“It took a group of people who understood the impact of a lack of information on a community and wanted to change it.”

 

 

Black Americans have lived in Haddonfield since its establishment; however, Rhodes was less interested in telling the stories of their enslavement than in how they lived as citizens in the decades that followed.

“All black people weren’t slaves in this community,” Rhodes said. “There were doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs. In the 1840s, when my family came here, they were free. Status as second-class citizens doesn’t sit well with them.”

Preserving Black Haddonfield History Map. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Equally written in local historical scholarship is the narrative that many of the early Black residents of Haddonfield were driven out of the borough by deaths, high taxes, and societal pressures.

To Rhodes, “what can reduce the social pressure that people of color face is making their contributions [to the community] known.

“I’m looking for a renaissance in this area,” she said. “I hope people knowing our history will encourage their becoming [Haddonfield]  residents. A more diverse community will serve them well.

“Hanging a banner celebrating Juneteenth was unthinkable even two years ago,” Rhodes said.

On Friday, the project kicked off with a walking tour of several historic sites in The Point, an historic Black Haddonfield neighborhood bordered by Potter and Ellis Streets, and Lincoln and Douglass Avenues.

Haddonfield Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich officially declared June 21 Juneteenth Day as observed in the borough, and spoke about supporting the Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project as “amplify[ing] a movement.

Lincoln School Black Haddonfield History Placard. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“It’s so important that we celebrate Black history, and revive it, and tell it every day,” the mayor said.

In a proclamation from the Haddonfield Human Relations Commission, Bianco Bezich described the holiday as “a time for us to honor the resilience and strength of those who fought for freedom and equality.”

Camden County Commissioner John Young said that the faithful preservation of local history enriches the community on the whole.

“History is what it is,” Young said.

“If we hide it, and bury it, and don’t tell the true story, how will people know the rich history of this county?”

Haddonfield Librarian Eric Zino, who described his workplace as “a building of stories,” said the project has been “knocking down barriers of discomfort” that surround the untold history of Black Haddonfield residents.

“We want to know and welcome everybody,” Zino said; “to get over the hurdles of ‘I didn’t know.’”

Unveiling two of the placards memorializing local historic sites for Mount Olivet Church and the Lincoln School — which now bears his name as Tarditi Commons — former Haddonfield Mayor Jack Tarditi talked about the project as being a long overdue reconciliation for a community that is well in touch with its local history.

“This is a banner moment for us to step back and recognize the history of Black Americans in town,” Tarditi said.

Built in 1923, the Lincoln School was constructed for the education of Black Haddonfield children during the segregation era. Enrollment had dwindled to just 13 students by the time the borough Board of Education voted it closed in 1948 — just a year after Gov. Albert E. Driscoll, a Haddonfield resident, championed the amendment to the state constitution integrating New Jersey schools.

A critical part of that local educational history belongs to Teresa Marvel Dansbury, who taught in the borough school district from 1916 to 1962 — both before and after its racial integration.

Haddonfield Schoolteacher Teresa Marvel Dansbury. Credit: Alfred J. Dansbury, Sr.

Her grandson, Alfred J. Dansbury, Sr., remembered his paternal grandmother as “a socialite and an activist” who was fairly removed from her time as a public schoolteacher during his upbringing.

“It’s a legacy,” Dansbury, Sr. said.

“As children growing up, I never knew the impact she made.

“We just knew she was a schoolteacher, and a founder of the NAACP in Camden County.”

But the stories family told of the struggles she faced in an overwhelmingly white Haddonfield were not inconceivable to him.

At the bottom rung of “the discrimination pecking order” were “Black people, Jewish people, and Catholics,” Dansbury, Sr. said, and his grandmother endured the mistreatment that went along with that.

Even growing up in neighboring Cherry Hill, Dansbury, Sr. had his own childhood memories of The Point. He played on Centennial Field every weekend when his grandparents lived in the borough, and attended Mt. Olivet Church, where his uncle, the Reverend J.B. Dicks, led the congregation.

Dansbury, Sr., also had less joyful recollections of experiencing the kind of racial targeting that was all-too-commonplace in some of those bygone days. In an age of whites-only community pools, Dansbury and his peers would swim in Evans Pond instead as teens.

One day, he said, two white teens traveled past them on the waterway in a boat. Some moments later, bullets flew past overhead.

“They passed us; we heard shots ringing out,” Dansbury, Sr. said. “By the goodness of God, I wasn’t hit.”

His father tracked the kids back to their home and uncovered the rifle they’d carried with them. The matter was later resolved in court.

Nonetheless, Dansbury, Sr. said, the experiences of his time in the historic neighborhood comprise a personal and family legacy that he is delighted to see commemorated in historic fashion, to be shared with a new generation of residents and visitors.

“It’s enlightening,” he said. “It’s a marvelous experience in feeling and believing that I’ve lived to see this from what it was to what it is now.”

Please support NJ Pen with a subscription. Get e-mails, and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Share.

Comments are closed.