Montclairians rally to save the ‘Freed Slave House’
“Whose house? Howe House!” was the chant led by former Councilwoman Renee Baskerville outside the small, two-story colonial on Claremont Avenue.
The modest appearance of the privately owned clapboard belied its significance for the group of people gathered on the sidewalk
in front of it on Sunday,
Oct. 16 — and for Montclair’s history.
Built by town founder and merchant Israel Crane around 1780, the residence is known as the James Howe House because it was once owned by the first freed slave in Montclair.
The rally was quickly organized over the weekend to boost efforts to preserve the house after the owner put it up for sale on Oct. 12.
In addition to being the founder of what was then known as Cranetown, Israel Crane was a slave owner. According to a press release from Friends of the Howe House, he bought Howe in 1813 for $50. When Crane died in 1858 at the age of 84, he granted Howe his freedom, $600 and the house situated at what is now 369 Claremont Ave.
The residence, which has come to be known as the “Freed Slave House,” officially became a local historic landmark in 2007.
On Sunday, a small but prominent group of residents raised their voices to bring awareness to the potential sale of the home.
As drivers slowed down to take flyers from participants or honk their horns in support, leaders in the community took the bullhorn.
The Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael and the Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair moderated the event and urged supporters to make donations to a fund intended for the purchase of the property.
The house, owned by Bob Van Dyk and occupied by renters, is listed for $379,000. When Friends of the Howe House reached out to Van Dyk about working toward its preservation, he informed them that he was looking to sell it.
“That's when our group got really excited,” Anya Sammler-Michael said. “If he wants to sell it, maybe we can buy it. Maybe we can restore it to the place that it deserves. …What would it be like if this home really was in the right hands?”
The idea that the home could be a place to restore African American history in Montclair by making it into an archive came flowing into her mind, she said.
The rally also spurred a larger conversation about the deep history and impact that the Black community has in Montclair.
During the gathering, many speakers said the possible razing of the home would be another of the many ways the Black community is being pushed out of Montclair.
“We have lived here for decades, centuries, and we feel like outsiders now,” said Joanne Childs-Ashe, a member of the Montclair African American Foundation.
Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress and a radio host, said, “Well, of course gentrification is an issue that affects most cities and large towns, and the cost of housing is going up everywhere, including Montclair, and it's not only low-income people that are being forced to move for economic reasons.
“Even moderate middle-income people face this housing challenge. Affordable housing is an issue that not only concerns African Americans, but concerns all working and poor people. And I think it's important that efforts be made to keep Montclair affordable for the people that live here.”
Throughout the rally, participants of all ages and races held signs with such phrases as “Wake Up, Montclair” and “Principles Over Profit.”
Though Montclair recognizes the house as a historic landmark, organizations like Friends of the Howe House are still working toward formal state and national recognition of the significance of the property.
“The house represents a piece of history that we don't know about but that we want to preserve for generations to come,” said Diane Tyree Anglin, a Montclair native and chair of the Montclair NAACP’s education committee.
“We grew up where our grandparents and parents didn't want to talk about slavery,” Anglin said. “We wanted to talk about where we have progressed from that. But now because we all participated in that we have all lost years of the truth.
“And the truth is going to be painful. But it has to be taught because how proud are we to know that Mr. Howe, even if he was bequeathed this house, it was deserving. And then he contributed to this community that we were able to grow up in.”
To contribute and learn more about the efforts to save the Howe House visit uumontclair.org and look for “Friends of the Howe House” under the “Connect & Serve” tab.