Marking the continuing debate on slavery's effects

An uproar about historical markers that reference slavery in Haddon Heights. One was reported stolen, and the other removed, the day after being installed in a county park.
An uproar about historical markers that reference slavery in Haddon Heights. One was reported stolen, and the other removed, the day after being installed in a county park.
Posted: June 11, 2014

A handsome historical marker titled "Slavery in Haddon Heights" is missing, and a related marker has been removed from the Camden County park that runs through the heart of the borough.

The disagreement over the two interpretive markers, involving a state judge, the county parks department, borough officials, and local historians and residents, is a testament to how readily the shameful wound of America's slave-owning past can be reopened.

It also touches on matters of privacy, process, and politics.

"This is the talk of the town right now," Mayor Ed Forte says. "The slavery issue seems to have upset people," adds Anne McAdams, a Haddon Heights Historical Society trustee.

Costing $1,950 each, the waist-high markers in the park were the newest of a dozen the private, nonprofit society has researched, designed, and erected at various sites around town since 2009 - without controversy until now. All 12 markers have been paid for by donations made by former borough resident Andrew Laitman in honor of his mother, Lynn.

The "Slavery in Haddon Heights" marker was installed near South Park Drive on May 7, as was a companion marker about the Hinchman-Lippincott House. The house, the borough's oldest, was where enslaved Africans called "Sambo" and other names lived and worked for most of the 18th century, according to historical research by consultant Paul Schopp and others.

The second marker was placed across North Park Drive from the house, the residence of Superior Court Judge Richard F. Wells.

Relations between Wells, a former borough mayor, and some local preservationists have been strained for many years over alterations to the house.

On May 8, a county parks crew responded to an e-mail from Wells, who asked that the two new markers be removed. The 16- by 24-inch face of the "Slavery in Haddon Heights" marker was missing, but the intact Hinchman marker was taken to a county storage facility.

Wells, whose wife's family has owned the house for three generations, declined my request for comment Monday.

But in a May 8 letter to Forte and the borough council, he wrote: "This is a private home, not a tourist attraction. I do not want any extra attention directed to my home, my family or me. I certainly do not want my home labeled as a 'slave owner' house. That alone is outrageous and presents serious problems to me."

Although the presence of slaves on the Hinchman property is well-documented, the Borough of Haddon Heights was not incorporated until 1904.

"People were appalled" by the association of the borough with slavery, says Forte, adding that the public library might be a better place to acknowledge that history. He adds that no one in borough hall had a role in selecting the text for the markers.

Starting in 2010, however, e-mails between the society and then-county parks chief Caren Fishman indicate that the county was aware of the content, as well as the proposed locations of the markers.

"Go ahead with the signs as planned," Fishman wrote on Aug. 16, 2010.

"Under the prior director there may have been a dialogue and language may have been approved, but ultimately, it was a surprise to us when these markers were erected," county spokesman Dan Keashen says.

I was surprised as well - particularly when I learned that slavery once was part of the lovely town where I live. But it was, and removing markers won't erase that.

I've also learned, from the surviving images of the missing marker, that in 1922 workers excavating a sewer line found human remains beneath Eleventh and South Park Avenues, formerly part of the Hinchman property. The marker includes part of a newspaper story that treated the discovery of a forgotten "colored" cemetery as a joke.

But thanks to the good work of the Haddon Heights Historical Society, the next time I'm walking in the park near Eleventh, I'll remember that I'm on hallowed ground.

Everyone who visits the park should have the same chance to discover that history. The "Slavery in Haddon Heights" marker should be restored.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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