Black History Month
February is the month the U.S. honors the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have molded our nation with rich cultural heritage, triumphs, and adversities. In honor of Black History Month, the League would like to pay homage to a historically significant town and landmark in New Jersey, representing the beginning of black communities and the tenaciousness of those freed during the slavery era.
The Borough of Lawnside, New Jersey
The Borough of Lawnside (formerly known as Snow Hill /Free Haven) is in Camden County and is famous for its African American history. Additionally, it was one of the first places in New Jersey to be recognized as a vibrant black community. In 1659, black people began to appear and settle on the land, which was also called “Burlington Island.” By the end of the eighteenth century, the county had the largest population of freed slaves in the entire State. The Quakers faithfully supported the sizeable black population, resulting in the new innovative South Jersey of “black emancipation.” At that time, emancipation was encouraged by Quakers who resided and held meetings in Burlington County, which was known for its river and known as the ‘Delaware River cradle of emancipation,’ where many slaves were freed.
On March 23, 1926, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore signed into law State Assembly Bill 561 (A-561). This bill dissolved Centre Township – of which Lawnside was part - officially declaring Lawnside as a Borough and incorporating it as a municipality. By the twentieth century, the town was a thriving community, despite the segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as "Jim Crow.” It was also well-known for its booming jazz and Cotton Club, The High Hat Club, Dreamland Café, and Club Harlem. Community members would visit to hear and dance with top African American performers and celebrities such as Joe Louis (1914-81), Sarah Vaughn (1924-90), Ella Fitzgerald (1917-96), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Billie Holliday (1915-59), LaWanda Page (1920-2002), Billy Eckstine (1914-93), and Arthur Prysock (1929-97).
As we recognize Lawnside, we also honor some of the communities’ first affluent African Americans, who owned and operated prosperous businesses. For example, Peter Mott, a Sunday School teacher, was among the first successful African Americans in the region. Born in Delaware and having fled to Lawnside, Mott bought three parcels of land he built on, which later became the well-known Peter Mott House. The house was a station along the underground railroad where he acted as an agent to help free slaves. Mott’s legacy is recalled because of his notoriety in a free black settlement and his ties to participants of the Underground Railroad. The Peter Mott house is now a museum and will be re-opening for public tours on March 18, 2023.
From 1965 to 1972, black scholars from Lawnside, including women and other accomplished public leaders formed African American School Organizations. At the time, influential leader Morris L. Smith was Lawnside’s School Board President and activist who championed civil rights and diversity. Like Peter Mott, he was also a Sunday school teacher. Just 5 days after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the school district, led by Morris Smith, adopted a resolution to make King’s Jan. 15 birthday a holiday, commencing in 1969. Lawnside was believed to be the first municipality to honor this day, and 14 years before it was declared a federal holiday.
The Borough of Lawnside, located eight miles north of Camden, is the only historically African American incorporated municipality in the northern United States and the first independent self-governing Black community north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The municipality dates to colonial times as a settlement of people of color and has maintained its primarily African American population throughout its existence. It's evident that our towns are built upon the strengths of diverse communities, and as a result, we expand progressively into a better humanity – a humanity that forgoes lines of color.
Black History is American History.
Contact: Ciara Bradley, League Research Associate & Paralegal, CBradley@njlm.org, 609-695-3481 x128.