New Jersey’s Black Heritage Trail signed into law

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law on Sept. 7, 2022 establishing the New Jersey Black Heritage Trail and Commission. The signing happened at the Newark Public Library. (Tennyson Donyéa / WHYY)

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law on Sept. 7, 2022 establishing the New Jersey Black Heritage Trail and Commission. The signing happened at the Newark Public Library. (Tennyson Donyéa / WHYY)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law on Wednesday establishing a Black Heritage Trail and Commission in New Jersey.

The trail will consist of historical markers placed at various sites in the state to commemorate African American contributions to the sciences, arts, education, journalism, and more.

Proposed locations include the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May County, Hinchcliffe Stadium in Paterson (which hosted Negro League baseball games in the early 1900s), and the Underground Railroad Museum in Burlington County.

Cape May County Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, New Jersey’s sole Black Republican state lawmaker, introduced the concept, which passed unanimously in both chambers of the Legislature.

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Cape May County Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, the New Jersey’s sole Black Republican lawmaker, introduced a bill that led to the Black Heritage Trail law.(Tennyson Donyéa / WHYY)

“This is a nonpartisan bill that we get to celebrate the history of the great Americans not just in New Jersey, but…possibly in the United States also, as we create a trail from South Jersey to North Jersey,” McClellan said at Murphy’s signing, which happened at the Newark Public Library.

The newly created Black Heritage Trail Commission, within the state Division of Travel and Tourism, is now tasked with designating the sites, designing the markers, and promoting the trail. State leaders appropriated $1 million for the project.

Elected officials called it a historic signing and said the path is a step toward reckoning with the United State’s history of racism.

“We really worked hard to be sure that we create equity, and that we move past a culture of cancel culture, but move forward towards recognizing our history,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, chair of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus.

“In the words of Maya Angelou: ‘we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ It is our job to carry forth the torch that has been placed on our shoulder…it is our job to make sure that we keep history alive,” Sumter said.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the trail would greatly benefit his city.

“I think it’s an awesome opportunity for us to highlight the contributions and the struggles that African Americans have faced in the amazing state of New Jersey. Outside of just the two migrations from the South to the North, the whole struggle for freedom,” Baraka said. “The abolitionist movement here, Harriet Tubman being in Newark, Frederick Douglass being in Newark, the Black hospital where my father [the late renowned poet Amiri Baraka] was born.”

New Jersey was the last Northern state to end slavery, with some residents most likely employing racist tropes to justify their reluctance, according to the Princeton and Slavery Project leaders. It was also the last state in the North to ratify the 13th Amendment, which federally abolished slavery.

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice reported that the median net worth for white families in New Jersey is $352,000, while the median net worth for Black families is $6,100.

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Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) speaks at an event commemorating Gov. Phil Murphy’s signing of a law that establishes the Black Heritage Trail and Commission. The signing took place at the Newark Public Library on Wed. Sept. 7. (Tennyson Donyéa / WHYY)

The institute said New Jersey’s racial wealth gap could be traced back to slavery, centuries of racist policies, and discriminatory banking practices.

Some Black leaders have called for the state to enact a reparations task force to study the root causes of systemic racism in New Jersey, and to come up with meaningful solutions.

McClellan said he had not read up on a reparations task force bill recently introduced by Sumter but was open to discussion.

“Obviously, [the Black Heritage Trail] is a step. But there’s a lot more to do,” McClellan said. “And we’re going to continue to get the word out about what African Americans have done for this community, and done for this state, and done for this nation. As long as we can continue to do that, we’ll start getting back the just do for what we’ve done.”

Last year, Gov. Murphy created the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, appointing Newark native Jayne Johnson as director. In 2021, Murphy also launched the Wealth Disparity Task Force to advise his administration on strategies to address the various causes and effects of wealth disparity in the state.

Some advocacy groups like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice have also asked Murphy to support the reparations task force publicly.

“I personally believe that the Wealth Disparity Task Force is right where it should be,” Murphy told WHYY News following his signing event. “It’s a work in progress. It is clearly focused without question on Black Americans, but it’s also focused on Hispanic and other communities that have been suffering in terms of wealth disparity.”

“The disparities are jaw-dropping. Typically, the principal reason is homeownership….I don’t know if I have a magic wand or a quick answer for it. But the task force is a really good group of people. It’s real. They’re meeting, and they’re deliberating, and I’m proud of that,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s Wealth Disparity Task has recently held virtual meetings where the public can provide input. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m.

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