By CBSNewYork Team
PATERSON, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — February is Black History Month, and part of that history comes to us from New Jersey’s third-largest city, via the Underground Railroad.
CBS2’s Nick Caloway has more on a historian trying to preserve memories of the past.
“There are 60 Underground Railroad sites in the state of New Jersey. This one in Paterson, the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad site, would make 61,” Jimmy Richardson said.
Richardson showed CBS2 around Huntoon’s Corner on Broadway. The site and statue honor Josiah Huntoon and William Van Rensalier.
Huntoon was a successful white businessman and owner of a coffee and spice mill in the heart of Paterson. He formed an unlikely friendship with Van Rensalier, a free African-American man. From the 1850s through the Civil War, the two worked together on and off the books.
“Josiah Huntoon was an agent of the Underground Railroad, but William Van Rensalier, you could consider him the conductor. He was the guy that was leading them in and out of Paterson,” Richardson said.
Risking their own lives, the two men hid enslaved people in the cellars of the coffee mill and Huntoon’s home, and helped them on their journey to freedom.
Huntoon and Van Rensalier were breaking the law, but they had help, and Paterson’s anti-slavery sentiment at the time meant they had friends in high places.
“The first mayor of the city of Paterson, John Jackson Brown, was an Underground Railroad agent. One of Paterson’s early sheriffs in 1850, Nathan Lane, he’s the sheriff and he’s an Underground Railroad agent,” Richardson said.
Paterson has changed a lot since those days. Josiah Huntoon’s home is now a fast-food joint, and the coffee mill is gone, too.
But the history remains, and maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from the two men.
“You have an opportunity to see Black and white people working together for the betterment of other people. I think that’s very important about the Underground Railroad,” Richardson said.
The historian also said the site has always been overlooked and underrepresented. That’s why he is actively working to have Huntoon’s Corner certified by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Its mission is to honor and preserve the history of resistance to enslavement.
Richardson has submitted five applications, but they’ve all been rejected. So he continues his research, making his case that there were many routes and stops along the Underground Railroad.
And Paterson was a significant one.
Original Story from CBS New York.