Lear more about the history of slavery in New Jersey and local safe points on the Underground Railroad courtesy of Montclair architect/historian Frank Gerard Godlewski on the podcast “Your History Your Story” with James Gardner.
The hour-long interview offers a revealing look into history, but the term Underground Railroad is a misnomer, says Godlewski. “You can’t think about it as a railroad. Think about it as a network, with points on the network that were safe.” Definitive information about the Underground Railroad is hard to come by. “This network was secret, so there wasn’t documentation.”
Even though it was north of the Mason-Dixon line (which separated slave states and “free” states in the years before the Civil War), slavery in New Jersey wasn’t abolished until 1865. What’s more, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that escaped slaves had to be returned to their “owners” in the South. Officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Bounty hunters for slaveowners also roamed the North, so even if escaped slaves made it to New Jersey, they were still in danger.
The podcast explores the path of the Underground Railroad in our area, abolitionist communities around Montclair, the role Black Churches played in the Underground Railroad and the significance of Montclair’s James Howe house.
The first part of the podcast looks at Godlewski’s background. While a student in Montclair during the 1970s he learned about local Black History from Dr. Evelyn (Boyden) Darrell, head of the Childrens’ Outpatient Clinic at Bellevue Hospital and a social activist who knew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“She was a mentor who provided me with lot a of cultural information and took me to historic Black houses, even cemeteries,” says Godlewski. “I feel like I’m a caretaker of this knowledge. Black History has always been denied it’s true place in American history.”
Godlewski is currently doing research with the New Jersey Afro-American History and Genealogical Society.