Preserving African American historical site in Burlco

The Rev. Terrell Person walks to the old Colemantown meetinghouse next to his church, Jacob's Chapel A.M.E. Church in Mount Laurel. Both structures need extensive work, and donations may help with that. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The Rev. Terrell Person walks to the old Colemantown meetinghouse next to his church, Jacob's Chapel A.M.E. Church in Mount Laurel. Both structures need extensive work, and donations may help with that. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 24, 2013

The Rev. Terrell Person is a preacher fond of history, metaphor, and the Bible.

And so, as he strolls the shade-dappled cemetery of Jacob's Chapel A.M.E. Church in Mount Laurel, he points out the tall grave marker of James Still, the "black doctor of the Pines" famous in the 19th century for his herbal remedies.

Over there is the grave of Cpl. George Robinson, one of a half-dozen local African American soldiers who served in the Civil War.

There are 110 headstones in this graveyard once known as the "Colemantown Negro Cemetery." But then the 64-year-old pastor points out the large swaths of mown grass where there are bodies but no markers.

"We're told," he says, "that for every headstone, we may have 25 more unmarked graves."

It's a reminder there is much known and unknown about this important stop on what was once the Underground Railroad - including the two white "stones" fronting the south side of Elbo Lane.

They are Person's little frame church, Jacob's Chapel, and the former meetinghouse next door.

They were built in the 19th century, exact dates and origins uncertain, and their historic value is undisputed. They will be the centerpiece of an Oct. 5 fund-raiser and consciousness-raiser, "If These Stones Could Speak."

The five-hour event will celebrate the African American community once centered here, which sheltered escaped slaves fleeing to the Northern states and Canada. The "stones" are Person's allusion to Joshua's biblical command as the Israelites crossed the Jordan to take stones from the river and make a marker of remembrance on the shore.

The day's activities will include chilling reenactments of a slave-catcher seizing fugitives - a chapter from Person's own family lore.

But the day also has a playful subtitle: "Jacob's Chapel Living History Family Fun Day," a reference to the pony rides, carnival games, face-painting, African dancers, and "food of the times" that follow.

Activities begin 11 a.m., with a dedication ceremony at nearby Fellowship Community Church at 1520 Mount Laurel Rd. in Mount Laurel. Jacob's Chapel sometimes shares other activities with the church.

Buses will transport visitors every half-hour to Jacob's Chapel for the reenactments. There, they can also tour the cemetery and view the Colemantown meetinghouse.

Guides will be actors playing abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Still, and Robinson, with members of the Sixth Regiment U.S. Colored Troops reenacting a Civil War Union camp.

The games, rides, and food will be at Fellowship Church.

The site is rich in the often-unsung history of the poor, Person said. It was recently listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and is under consideration for inclusion on the National Register.

A descendant of James Still and William Still, the "father" of the Underground Railroad, Person has led this 135-member congregation for 19 years.

It was at Jacob's Chapel, in fall 1970, that then-Mayor Bill Haines told a crowd of 60 African Americans Mount Laurel was denying their request for affordable housing.

"If you people can't afford to live in our town, then you'll just have to leave," Haines said, provoking outrage and litigation that led to the New Jersey Supreme Court's landmark Mount Laurel decisions of 1975 and 1983 that bar exclusionary zoning.

But Colemantown's place in African American history dates back a century and a half before. A rural community that once included a stable, taverns, a blacksmith, and a general store, it was named for William Coleman, who served as the "conductor" there on the Underground Railroad.

Recent historical research suggests, however, that some dates and names traditionally associated with Colemantown are in need of revision, Person said.

A tall man with a white goatee, he pointed to the impressive metal sign at the front of the cemetery that credits the name Jacob's Chapel to Albert Jacob, a local Quaker, who is thought to have deeded the land in 1811.

But it now appears, Person said, that the chapel "may have taken its name from a Jacob Mitchell," a pastor there in the late 1860s, and that a deed once thought to have been dated 1813 now appears to have been dated 1873 - the faded 7 mistaken for a 1.

If Jacob's Chapel was built after the Civil War, the trapdoor in its vestibule floor probably did not conceal fugitive slaves, as many visiting schoolchildren might suppose. It nevertheless shows them, he said, "the kinds of hiding places" that fleeing slaves once used to hide from brutal bounty hunters.

Likewise, the origin of the other "stone" - the adjacent meetinghouse - is shrouded in uncertain history.

Historian Paul Schopp of Riverton, who has researched the meetinghouse, said it likely began in 1820 as a schoolhouse on Brace Road in what is now the Crossroads section of Medford.

Schopp said last week that as the African American community of Colemantown grew larger, its members "probably got tired of the walk" four miles into Crossroads and moved the building in 1840 to Colemantown.

There, it would have served, he said, as a worship site for escaped slaves living among Colemantown residents. "My research suggests it is the oldest African American Episcopal congregation in Burlington County," Schopp said.

On a tour of the meetinghouse last week, Person pointed to water damage on its ceiling, rotting windows, and a steel reinforcement bar running between the side walls to keep them from buckling.

He wants to see the space turned into a museum, he said, but a historically faithful restoration "is probably going to cost $500,000." That figure is based, he said, on estimates to restore the James Still House in Medford.

The Oct. 5 "If These Stones Could Talk" event is intended to acquaint the public with the site's history and promote financial support for its renovation.

"We're not trying to do it all at once," he said. "Our goal is to preserve these stones as a place of memory."

856-779-3841

doreilly@phillynews.com


HONORING SLAVES

What: "If These Stones Could Speak: Jacob's Chapel Living History Family Fun Day."  

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 5.

Where: Fellowship Community Church, 1520 Mount Laurel Rd., Mount Laurel.

Buses will transport visitors every half-hour to Jacob's Chapel for reenactments. They can also tour the cemetery and view the Colemantown meetinghouse.

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