Written and provided by Amy Petrie of South Jersey Adventures
Every February, students across the country are taught about Black History. As a student growing up in an urban area of South Jersey, it would be pretty safe to say that I wasn’t exactly excited for this part of the curriculum. As young, white girl, I remember it being a series of negative experiences for me. Elementary age children were pinning races against each other because of what we were mandated to learn in school. We were all so innocent and immature and a topic that heavy should never be fed to us at that early in our lives.
Flash to this past February, my son, who was in Kindergarten, came home from school and probed, “Mommy, did you know white-skinned people and dark-skinned people couldn’t go to the same school?”
I questioned him a bit about his feelings regarding what he learned, but he was just completely overwhelmed with confusion. This little boy who has loved his “dark-skinned” friend, Makenzi, for his entire life could not grasp the idea that had he been from a different era, would be ridiculed for being friends with her.
I, then, became agitated at his school and worried that my experiences with Black History Month would be repeated with my children. Honestly, I was seeing red. How could they drop this heavy, awful information on children that couldn’t even write a full sentence? How dare they?!
I don’t want my kids to have a negative connotation with black history, like I did growing up. I want them to be armed with knowledge, so when something is taught, they can raise their hand and add to the conversation.
That’s when I decided to take it upon myself to teach my children about Black History. Not what is told in schools, nor what someone’s racist uncle preaches. And not only Black History, but LOCAL BLACK HISTORY. The history that directly affects us all because it happened right here, in our own community.
Growing up, I read and wrote a multitude of book reports about Harriet Tubman. When I say that I idealized her, that was an understatement. However, until I was an adult, I never realized that she hid slaves beneath a church in Greenwich, Cumberland County, only a few miles away from where I grew up. HARRIET TUBMAN was only miles from my hometown and I was never told. And the Greenwich-line was one of the few Underground Railroad routes in South Jersey. Why was I not taught this in school? Surely, I would’ve been better connected to the history I was being fed had I known that it wasn’t just stories from down south.
Why did I not know that there were graves of black Civil War soldiers minutes from me in Salem City?
How did I not know that Edward Richardson was an escapee of slavery in Maryland only to become a decorated soldier in the Civil War and finally settling in Woodstown?
In Lawnside, the Peter Mott House was owned by a free black business man who hid slaves and helped them along the Underground Railroad. It now stands as a historic site and museum.
And there’s so many other places in South Jersey with black significance!
South Jersey played such an integral role in the freeing of slaves. There were three major Underground Railroad routes through South Jersey — and while Tubman worked as a cook in Cape May in 1852, earning money to help runaway bondsmen, she learned of the Greenwich Line, and of routes in Salem, Cumberland and Cape May counties and began making her trips to the South, making over nineteen trips. At one of the busiest times during the Underground Railroad, there were over 2,000 fleeing slaves in South Jersey at any given point. That is incredible!
These are the stories that should be told; these places should be field trip destinations for our youth.
Throw out the text books; let them stand on the same soil that Harriet Tubman once stood on! Let them salute a man who escaped slavery and fought hard for our country. Let them learn through the history that affects our community and let that inspire change. Let our children connect to the area where they are being raised. With that connection, they’ll be more excited to invest. And with that investment breeds real change.
The schools will not teach our history. I may not be black, nor do I have ancestors that had any part in slavery, but it is still my history. As a person who is native to South Jersey, as an American, and as an intelligent human being with the compassion and foresight to be an instrument of change, this is my history.
But this type of history, the type that impacts you directly, is not taught in schools. All of this falls on us, as parents and members of the community. It’s time to get your hands dirty.
Black History shouldn’t be something that’s celebrated purely during the month February and that’s precisely why this is my first article.
And now that it’s summer, take your children to stand where Harriet Tubman stood over 150 years ago, right here in South Jersey.