July 4th is almost upon us, so I’ve been thinking about patriotic activities that are fun for the whole family: fireworks, parades, barbecues, tearing down statues, the whole gamut. I mean, if we’re going to celebrate the country, let’s celebrate what’s good about it, not 400-plus years of slavery, brutality and racism. There’s only one problem – there aren’t any statues in Montclair to tear down. I checked.

Not only are there no Confederate monuments (which you would expect since New Jersey fought against the insurrectionists in the Civil War), but there are hardly any statues, period. There is one of Yogi Berra at the Yogi Berra Museum at Montclair State, but that’s not in Montclair. Almost none of MSU is in Montclair, which is why it should be called Montclair Adjacent State University, but that’s a topic for another column.

The statue at the top of the column in Edgemont Park is Winged Victory, while the figures at the bottom are some Doughboys (not the Pillsbury kind – it’s a World War I memorial). Aside from that, all we have are some crappy plaques, including one that says (more or less) “George Washington slept here” and another that claims that General Lafayette stood there. 

But lest we get too smug about the whole “we were with the Union” thing, you should know New Jersey was the last northern state to end slavery, only completely eliminating it in 1866. In 1804 the Legislature passed a law charmingly titled “The Gradual Abolition of Slavery Law,” but that only freed enslaved children when they reached the age of 21 (women) or 25 (men). Any adults remained in bondage. That means on the first Juneteenth, in 1865, there were still legally enslaved people in New Jersey. 

But hey, that’s Jersey, we live in integrated, liberal Montclair. 

Yeah, about that… 

There might not have been “Whites Only” signs anywhere, but this town was segregated. Well into the 1960s, Montclair had neighborhoods and businesses that were de facto off limits to Black people. Among the businesses were the Bellevue Theatre and Bond’s Ice Cream on Valley Road in Upper Montclair. (They made an exception for Black members of the football team.)

The first Black residents of Montclair were here against their will, including the enslaved people owned by Israel Crane, whose 1796 house is the focal point of the Montclair History Center. That house is an embodiment of our complicated history. In the 1920s it was sold and became the home of the Montclair YWCA, the only independent African American branch of the segregated YWCA, established and run by a community of successful, middle-class African American women. 

You’ve heard of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)? Our Fourth Ward, created by segregation and redlining, is a historic Black neighborhood, an incubator and home for successful African American families. That community made Montclair what it is, but today it’s being whittled away by the forces of gentrification and development, because, you know, money.  

And while we’re celebrating history on July 4th, take a break from grilling meat and blowing things up and consider the Lenni Lenape, the original inhabitants of this area, who were pushed out or killed by European invaders and forcibly removed to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada.

Except not all. The Lenni Lenape are still here. There are three Lenape communities in New Jersey, including the Ramapough Lenape Nation, whose homeland once extended from the Raritan River to Albany. Brookdale Park is thought to have been the site of one of their seasonal campgrounds.

In 2019, the Presbyterian Church transferred the deed to a church in Stony Point, New York, to the Sweetwater Cultural Center, an Indigenous-led organization associated with the Ramapough. Now, I’m not saying we should give Brookdale Park back to the Lenape, but what about the pickleball concession? Still too much? 

OK, baby steps. Let’s start with a land acknowledgment, a formal statement recognizing that we all live (and play pickleball) on Lenape land. Montclair Adjacent State University has taken the first steps to do that for their campus, meaning we’re getting shown up, once again!  Now, when should we do it? How about Indigenous People’s Day, Oct. 10, 2022?  Maybe we could even have fireworks.

As for the statues, since we don’t have any to tear down, maybe we should put some up. We could start with Alice Hooe Foster, first African American graduate of Montclair High, graduate of Howard University and founder of the local YWCA. Or maybe Mary Hayes Allen, who led a successful protest that stopped the showing of “Birth of a Nation” at the Clairidge and then the Bellevue.   

Statues won’t stop the ongoing destruction of the town’s historic character, but at least they will remind us of what we’re losing. And we won’t have to tear them down.

Richie Chevat
Richie Chevat

Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.