They met by chance in a cemetery behind a church in Elizabeth. One, a black woman, was the pastor of the church seeking to preserve the legacy of enslaved ancestors. The other, a white woman, was looking for an ancestor who was part of the Continental Congress.

Pastor Wanda Lundy then invited Nancy Benz to join the nonprofit 313+ Ancestors Speak project, which honors enslaved and free African Americans buried at the old cemetery at Siloam-Hope First Presbyterian Church on Broad Street near Caldwell Place .

Now the women are working hand in hand to achieve the nonprofit’s goal of building a 21-foot monument in the cemetery to African ancestors and telling their stories, conducting research and creating a museum. dedicated interactive.

“I would like to see the descendants of the African people buried in the cemetery and the descendants of the European people wondering if…we agree that everyone should have access to the rights set out in the declaration of independence,” Lundy said. , 63, of his broader hopes for the draft. “And if we don’t, how can we get there?”

“If we don’t have these conversations, we’ve wasted our time in a lot of ways,” she added.

Research specialist James Amemasor works at the New Jersey Historical Society and says this project is essential.

“It recognizes the presence and contributions of Africans to the growth and development of Elizabeth and New Jersey,” he said, “Doing so is essential to making the history of the city and the ‘Inclusive and Inclusive State’. completed.”

The $250,000 project is funded by grants and donations — primarily from the City of Elizabeth, with help from recreation director Stan Neron and the Police Benevolent Association.

Volunteers erected approximately 18 feet of cinder block for the monument. And sculptor and painter Sterling Brown, the designer, will add bronze artwork after the black granite is in place. Meanwhile, Lundy created a community forum, What’s The 313? Video blog The ancestors speak. At the end of October, the 313+ Ancestors Speak Committee will dedicate the monument, which is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2023, during a ceremony at the cemetery.

A search for ancestors

Benz and her husband were searching for the grave of Benz’s sixth great-grandfather, Stephen Crane, on a Sunday afternoon in 2021 when she encountered Lundy, who always introduces himself to people she sees at the cemetery. Together they spent the whole afternoon searching for Crane’s grave.

About a month ago, Lundy called Benz from the cemetery and “immediately handed the phone over to a very distant cousin of mine who lives in Arkansas,” said Benz, 70, of Cranford.

Benz’s cousin was returning from Maine and had stopped at the cemetery to visit the graves of her relatives, “the Magicians”, as in Magie Avenue at Elizabeth and Union. The Magie family, originally spelled McGhie, Benz said, helped found Elizabethtown, now Elizabeth, and the First Presbyterian Church in New Jersey.

“We’re doing a family story to see how Magics and Cranes are related,” Benz said. “I think for other people there is absolutely potential to connect with loved ones.”

Old First’s painful past

Amemasor, a research specialist at the New Jersey Historical Society, said Elizabeth was the first English settlement in New Jersey and Africans were brought there.

The founders of the state formed the First Presbyterian Church, which welcomed only English settlers. Siloam Presbyterian Church was established for enslaved and free African Americans.

A third church, Hope Memorial Presbyterian, was added later. In 1985 Siloam merged with Hope Memorial. In 2019 Siloam-Hope merged with First Presbyterian to become Siloam-Hope First Presbyterian Church.

Old First was the only cemetery in New Jersey until the 17th century. New Jersey’s founders, other Europeans, and African Americans, about 2,000 in total, are buried here.

Black people were not allowed to be buried alongside white people in the separate cemetery, said Leonard Jackson, 71, from Elizabeth, recounting the stories his late mother told him. Thus, he said white people were buried in the front and black people were buried or dumped in the back – mostly in unmarked graves, he said.

Some 117 African Americans have a first and last name, another 40 have a first or last name, and the rest are unknown. So far, there is only one African American ancestor listed as free. Her name was Hannah. She was 66 when she died on March 11, 1821, and her cause of death was unknown.

Lafayette Boyleston is one of the few whose grave has a headstone.

“We know he is one of the ancestors because in the upper right corner of the headstone there are the letters Col’d, which means colorful,” Lundy said. “We know that the slave owner of Lafeyette Boyleston paid for his funeral. That’s some of the research I found,” she said.

Before she became a pastor in 2019, someone had already searched the church’s “burial register” of all the people buried in the cemetery and created two lists, one of Europeans and the other from Africans. When Lundy saw that there were 313 names of Africans on the list, she created the 313+ Ancestors Speaks project.

“To have people buried in unmarked graves, and then among them there were also Continental soldiers, my motivation was to correct social evil,” he said. “They must not be forgotten and especially their service to this country.h of Elizabeth, New Jersey,” with instructions for sticking to them.

“They didn’t even put their name to stone,” said 313+ Ancestors Speak board member Jackson. “Everything you’ll see is stained, and they’re not in good condition at all.”

Righting “a social wrong”

The 313+ Ancestors Speak Project Board of Directors is made up of 16 people, a mix of congregation members, police officers, community members and historians.

Elizabeth Police Chief Giacomo Sacca said he got involved with the project to help fix a “social fake”.

“To have people buried in unmarked graves, and then among them there were also Continental soldiers, my motivation was to correct social evil,” he said. “They must not be forgotten, and especially their service to this country.”

The hope of building the monument also sends a message to the community that we can work together to pave the way for the future,” he said.

Linda Caldwell Epps, 70, from Elizabeth, was interested in history and started doing research as a volunteer.

“We can no longer say that we have done well historically if we don’t include other cultures and races, and it underlines that they have contributed to life as we know it today, to the food we eat , customs,” she said. “It’s not just something that’s built exclusively by Europeans.”

Lundy thinks back to the day she met Benz at the cemetery. She said she got chills thinking about how she had been connected to so many different people almost in a kismet way.

“Identity is important,” she said, “and I think the more connected we are, especially us as human beings, to our identity, the better we can get along with others.”

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Shaylah Brown can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @shaylah_brown