A Painful Lesson In Black History Is Remembered

Posted: February 08, 1988

Fashionably dressed black women and black men in crisp suits and ties sat unmoving, their faces grim, listening to talk about slavery.

During the Colonial period, they were told, their ancestors made up about 7 percent of the population of Burlington County, where they sat listening. Their ancestors, however, were slaves who could not own land and often were not provided with adequate clothing or shoes during the winters.

The speaker, historian Jean Soderlund, was talking about slavery in the Middle Atlantic colonies as part of the fifth annual Black History Month program sponsored by the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Burlington County Cultural and Heritage Commission. The event was held yesterday in Mount Holly at the old courthouse, built in 1796 on High Street.

Soderlund, who is white, is a historian who specializes in black history and is the author of Quakers and Slavery: A Dividing Spirit, which was published in 1985 by Princeton University Press.

She told the audience of 100 about John Woolman, an important Quaker abolitionist from Mount Holly, who began his work against slavery around 1740 after writing a bill of sale for a slave.

"That made him realize how awful it was . . . that he had participated in that way," she said.

Even in that era, she said, Woolman used the boycott as a weapon.

"He felt that was one way people could fight against slavery, by refusing to use products made by slaves."

Soderlund also talked about the business of slavery.

"It made Africans into black gold, really," she said. "It caused the society of West Africa to disintegrate."

After the slaves were captured in Africa, the trip to America took from 10 weeks to six months, Soderlund said. Many died because of conditions aboard ship, while others committed suicide. The Africans who escaped were those who staged rebellions aboard ship and sailed the ships back to Africa, she said.

Soderlund said there were no mass rebellions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; these two states had fewer blacks than did the Southern states. But individually, blacks waged their own silent rebellions, she said. Most, Soderlund said, ran away; others slowed work, and some put poison or ground glass in their masters' food.

The program, which began with Soderlund's talk about the Colonial period, carried its Black History Month theme into the 20th century, with entertainment by actors from the New Freedom Theater in Philadelphia. The performers acted and sang in a number of vignettes that portrayed important events and people in black history.

The program ended with music from the Fort Dix Gospel Choir.

Soderlund is curator of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, which features books about the civil rights movement.

"I think it's kind of a surprise to a lot of people," she said of her studying, teaching and writing about black history.

Soderlund, a native of Deptford Township, lives in Washington Township. In 1969, while a teacher at Deptford Township High School, she developed a black studies course at the school. She also taught black history at Camden County

College in Blackwood before becoming a curator at Swarthmore.

Soderlund said she did not know what sparked her interest in slavery and black history.

"I think it's the most important part of our history, the history of race relations," she said.

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