Abigail Goodwin, Quaker abolitionist

Goodwin Sisters Home, Underground Railroad

Listen to story: Abigail Goodwin, Quaker abolitionist Listen to more: Quaker Abigail Goodwin’s views on slaveryMap this location: 47 Market St., Salem, NJ 08079

Humanitarian work shaped the lives of the Goodwin sisters, Elizabeth (1789-1860) and Abigail (1793-1867).   Daughters of a Quaker farmer who had freed, or manumitted, all his slaves during the American Revolution (1), both sisters were founding members of the Female Benevolent Society of Salem, NJ, an organization dedicated to aiding the poor, infirm and elderly (2). 

In the 1830s, Abigail emerged as an active figure in the Underground Railroad movement.  The sisters, now fervent abolitionists, came into contact with leading anti-slavery figures, including William Still, Lucretia Mott, and orator James Miller McKim, who came to Salem to lecture as their guest. His program, however, attracted a mob of anti-abolitionists who pelted the Goodwin house with sticks and rocks (3). 

If anything, the attack deepened the sisters’ commitment.  From then on their home became a prominent beacon for freedom seekers, providing shelter, clothing, food, and funds as they were able.  When Amy Reckless (see: “How one woman set herself free”) returned to Salem, she partnered with the Goodwin sisters in collecting goods and financial contributions. 

Because of her frank and eloquent writings, Abigail is better known than Elizabeth.  Many of Abigail’s letters and a portrait were published in William Still’s pioneering work, The Underground Rail Road, in 1872 (4).  Only Abigail lived to see slavery abolished as they had both desired.  The sisters rest in the historic Salem Friends Burial Ground, not far from the Black poet Hetty Saunders’ grave (see: “Poet Hetty Saunders describes her escape”).

In 2008, the Goodwin Sisters House on Market Street in Salem was designated the as the first site in New Jersey accepted into the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The house is also a site on the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail (5).

(1) Joan N. Burstyn, ed., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, Metuchen, NJ: NJ Women’s History Project, 1996, 65.
(2) Minutes of the Salem Female Benevolent Society, Salem, NJ, 1817 – 1947, ms, Salem County Historical Society, Salem, NJ
(3) The Freeman’s Banner, Salem, NJ, Vol. 4, No.1, June 28, 1837.
(4) Still stated that Abigail Goodwin was “one of the rare, true friends to the Underground Rail Road” who “worked for the slave as a mother would work for her children” (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872, 620-621).
(5) Deborah Marquis Kelly and Ellen Freedman Schultz, New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail, Trenton, NJ: NJ Department of Environmental Protection, n.d., 63.

How one woman set herself free

Col. Robert Johnson House Where Amy Hester Reckless Lived as a Slave

Listen to story: How one woman set herself freeMap this location: 90 Market St., Salem, NJ 08079

Amy Hester Reckless (1793-1881) was enslaved by one of Salem County’s wealthiest families, but took action to liberate herself and her children, and then to help others gain their freedom.

She was the daughter of Dorcas Boadley, who belonged to Jane Gibbon Johnson. Upon Johnson’s death, her son, Col. Robert G. Johnson assumed ownership. The Colonel, his family, and their servants lived in Johnson Hall, the elaborate house he designed and built in 1807 at 90 Market St. in Salem, NJ. After his first wife’s death, Johnson married Julianna Zantzinger in 1813. Her father was a slaveholder in Lancaster, PA, and she was noted for her beauty and wealth. However, her harsh treatment of Amy Reckless also gained notoriety. It caused Reckless to flee with her child to Philadelphia, where she sought the aid of the Abolition Society.

An Abolition Society member wrote that “the immediate cause that induced Amy to leave R. Johnston [sic] I have understood was severe usage by Roberts wife of which a physician in the Town of Salem is aware.”(1) Reckless claimed that she had been freed by Col. Johnson’s mother, however, documentation of her manumission appears to have been lacking. The Colonel sought her return, but she refused.

While in the city she worked with the Female Anti-Slavery Society; she cherished a photograph of the Society’s members until her death. It was not until after the Colonel died in 1850 that she came back to Salem. She resided on Market St. just a short distance from Johnson Hall (2). She continued her anti-slavery activities here, working with Abigail Goodwin to support freedom seekers (3). When she died, her treasured effects included an abolitionist flag, “inscribed with strong language expressive of the sentiments of anti-slavery workers” – of which she was one (4).

(1) Letter. Isaac Barton, Philadelphia, to John G. Mason, Salem, NJ, 5/26/1826, ms, Salem County Historical Society, Salem, NJ.
(2) Reckless lived in the home of Eliza Clement, the wife of Abigail and Elizabeth Goodwin’s half-brother Samuel.
(3) Goodwin wrote that “Amy is very good in helping, and is collecting clothing,” and personally donated money to the cause. William Still, The Underground Rail Road, Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877, 622.
(4) “Death of a Colored Centenarian – Mrs. Hester Reckless,” Public Ledger, Philadelphia, January 29,1881.

The great orator, Dr. John Stewart Rock

Site of Dr. Harbert’s Dental Office where John Stewart Rock began his professional studies

Listen to story: Orator John RockListen to more: John Rock’s own wordsMap this location: 81 Market St., Salem, NJ 08079

John Stewart Rock (1826-1866) spoke from personal experience when he declared that “whenever the colored man is elevated, it will be by his own exertions” (1).  His accomplishments were extraordinary for any man, especially given that he died at the young age of forty.

Born in Elsinboro, NJ, into a free black family, Rock exhibited a voracious appetite for knowledge. Until age 18, he studied in the school Salem Quakers founded for black students.  Rock became the head of the school in 1845, the first of his many professional advances. At the same time, he began studying medicine with several Salem physicians, entering into an apprenticeship to become a dentist with Dr. Samuel Harbert, whose office was located at 81 Market St. in Salem, NJ, across from Johnson Hall.

At age 22 Dr. Rock launched his dental practice and his reputation as a powerful writer and speaker in the cause of racial suffrage and abolition. In 1850 he moved his practice to Philadelphia and studied medicine, completing his studies by 1852. He then relocated to Boston, attracted no doubt by the prosperous free Black and abolitionist communities there, which included Frederick Douglass.

While his reputation continued to grow, his health began to fail.  A recuperative trip to France helped him regain his strength; however, his physician recommended he pursue another career, which is why he studied law.  Again, he excelled and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1861.  In 1865 he reached the highpoint of his life – he became the first African American admitted to practice law before the United States Supreme Court.  Unfortunately, Rock died a little over a year later, leaving us to ponder what might yet have been.

Despite a brief life Rock was a forceful voice for freedom, a voice he first discovered in Salem.

(1) J. Harlan Buzby, John Stewart Rock: Teacher, Counselor, Salem, NJ: Salem County Historical Society, 2002, 82. Buzby’s biography is the source for this brief sketch and includes all of Rock’s known writings.

A Slave Catcher on Trial in Salem

Slave Catcher’s Trial, Sherron’s Hotel

Listen to story: A Slavecatcher on trialMap this location: 113 Market St., Salem, NJ 08079

Listening to the story of how a slave catcher went on trial in Salem, NJ, shows why freedom seekers could not feel secure in staying in South Jersey very long (1). The Donahower incident in 1834 gives insights into the methods and tactics of slave catchers throughout the region.

The local press at the time noted that African Americans in Salem County had been “seized and taken… by persons who had no authority for so doing; blacks who were not slaves have been kidnapped and attempted to be sold” (2). Thomas Oliver (see: “Thomas Clement Oliver, Underground Railroad Conductor”) recounted stories of raids of public meetings and home invasions that sometimes involved local slaveowners as well as hired bounty hunters like Donahower. Anti-abolitionists, including Robert C. Johnson (Col. Johnson’s son), were known to protest and heckle anti-slavery speakers (3).

Given the sometimes public ambivalence toward slavery in South Jersey, it appears that it was Donahower’s poor treatment of his captives and subsequent arrogant behavior and disrespect for local authority that truly enraged the populace. A local newspaper editor referred to his actions as “villainous conduct” (4). In the same article, however, the editor took great pains to emphasize that the citizens who protested the slave catcher Donahower’s actions were not “fanatics” or “enemies of slave holders;” they simply wanted to be certain that his claims were valid and legal.

The release of Donahower’s captives, it appears, is not evidence of anti-slavery fervor in Salem. Supporters of abolition and the Underground Railroad faced local opposition, took risks, and made personal sacrifices to secure freedom for all people.

(1) Abigail Goodwin noted that it was dangerous to linger in Salem because of the slavecatchers (Joan N. Burstyn, ed., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, Metuchen, NJ: NJ Women’s History Project, 1996, 66).
(2) The Freeman’s Banner, Salem, NJ, January 14, 1835.
(3) When Philadelphia abolitionist Lewis Gunn spoke in Salem in 1835, a witness recorded that Johnson “interfered the harmony of the meeting by talkery and other unseemly conduct.” John Mason Brown, Diary, April 30, 1835, ms. Rutgers University, Special Collections.
(4) The Freeman’s Banner, Salem, NJ, January 14, 1835.

Poet Hetty Saunders describes her escape

Hetty Saunders Delaware River Landing

Listen to story: A Poet describes her escapeListen to more: Saunders’ poem “The Little Wanderer”Map this location: 798 Salem-Ft. Elfsborg Rd., Elsinboro, NJ 08079 (Alloway Creek Watershed Parking Area)

Esther “Hetty” Saunders (c 1793-1862) and Amy Reckless (see: “How one woman set herself free”) were the same age and both were born into slavery, but their lives were very different. Hetty Saunders’ family fled enslavement in Delaware in 1800. Pursued by slavecatchers, her father sought a safe haven for his daughter in the home of Joseph and Ann Hall in Elsinboro, NJ, not far from where they crossed the Delaware River. Although hesitant to shelter the young girl, the Halls agreed to keep her until her father’s return. By the time he came back for his daughter, she had endeared herself to the Quaker family, who convinced him to let her stay with them permanently. This fateful turn of events shaped the rest of her life, for she remained with the Halls and their daughters in Elsinboro and Mannington until her death (1).

Despite the fact that the Halls treated her with kindness and provided for some level of education (2), her early life must have been difficult and somewhat isolated. As a Black woman, she lived as an outsider within Salem’s white Quaker community, even though that number included such remarkable people as the Goodwin Sisters. Saunders found in poetry a way to express her feelings and ultimately to create a rare and remarkable literary legacy. Using allegory and symbolism, Saunders subtly conveyed the strictures of the world in which she lived as a woman of color. Clearly she wrote mostly for herself – none of her works were published during her lifetime.

Hall family descendents preserved the slim portfolio of her writings, a biography and a pencil portrait, which were donated to the Salem County Historical Society. The Society published her work in 2001.

Hetty Saunders rests in the Salem Friends Burial Ground much as she lived. She is buried along the outer perimeter of the property next to many of the Quakers she knew and served, but at last no longer in the shadows. Her gravesite is part of the NJ Women’s Heritage Trail (3).

(1) Donald L. Pierce, ed., I Love to Live Alone: The Poems of Esther “Hetty” Saunders, Salem, NJ: Salem County Historical Society, 2001. Pierce’s monograph includes a biography and all poems attributable to Saunders with annotations.
(2) Saunders is said to have read all the books in the Hall household, especially the Bible. Pierce, 8.
(3) Deborah Marquis Kelly and Ellen Freedman Schultz, New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail, Trenton, NJ: NJ Department of Environmental Protection, n.d., 106.

Thomas Clement Oliver, Underground Railroad conductor

Thomas Clement Oliver and the Camp Meeting, Mt. Pisgah Cemetery

Listen to story: An Underground RR ConductorListen to more: How Oliver found out about the UGRRMap this location: 4 E. Amwellbury Rd., Elsinboro, NJ 08079

The Reverend Thomas Clement Oliver (1818-1900) was a conductor on the Salem and Greenwich Lines of the Underground Railroad (UGRR), helping freedom seekers find their way north to New England and Canada.  Oliver began his work when still a child, as his parents were both conductors as well.

Late in life, Oliver recollected his exploits in a series of interviews with one of the early UGRR researchers.  His eyewitness accounts provide the most detailed information available about how the system operated in South Jersey (1).  Oliver explained the choice of preferred routes away from the river (slaveowners could cross too easily and intercept the travelers) and through towns and villages populated by free blacks and sympathetic whites, especially Quakers.  He recounted stories of escapes, raids and rescues which brought him into contact with major figures of the UGRR, including William Still in Philadelphia and Gerrit Smith, whose home in Peterboro, NY, was a major UGRR stop (2).

His family lived in Elsinboro, NJ, on the farm of Quaker Thomas Clement (3), where Oliver was born. He was first educated in Salem’s Quaker School and then attended the Theological Seminary in Princeton, from which he later received an honorary degree. It appears that the Olivers were affiliated with of Salem’s AME congregation, New Jersey’s oldest African American church. The cemetery at Moore’s Corner in Elsinboro marks the establishment of the first AME church building (4).

After the Civil War he ministered to churches in New York and ultimately Chatham, Windsor and Drummondsville in Canada – free Black settlements where he had long before directed freedom seekers and where he continued to serve their needs until his death.

(1) See Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1898.
(2) The Wilbur H. Siebert Collection (1840-1954), MIC 192, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, OH, contains Siebert’s unpublished interview transcripts, which provide more detailed information about Oliver’s life and work.
(3) Thomas Clement was Elizabeth and Abigail Goodwin’s stepfather.
(4) Donald L. Pierce, “Mt. Pisgah AME Church: A Jewel in South Jersey,” ms, Salem County Historical Society, Salem, NJ.

Black Civil War veterans remembered

Freedom Fighters, US Colored Troops, Spencer UAME Cemetery

Listen to story: Black Civil War veterans rememberedListen to more: Description of a parade honoring Black Civil War VeteransMap this location: 314 Bailey St., Woodstown, NJ 08098

“Sooner or later the clashing of arms will be heard in this country and the black man’s services will be needed”(1). This prediction, made by John Rock in 1858, foreshadowed not only the Civil War, but also the call for African American soldiers.  Volunteers formed approximately 175 regiments of over 178,000 men, bolstering the Union forces at a critical time.  By the war’s end Black freedom fighters constituted about one-tenth of all Union troops (2).

Black Civil War veterans are buried at Spencer Union American Methodist Episcopal (UAME) Church, Woodstown, NJ, and several other African American cemeteries, including Mt. Pisgah in Elsinboro, also in Salem County (see: “Thomas Clement Oliver: Underground Railroad Conductor”). Service records show that over 1,000 Black New Jerseyans participated in most of the battles and events during the final years of the Civil War, but after hostilities ended  these same veterans often struggled for recognition and had difficulty obtaining pensions despite their service and valor (3).

Church cemeteries are an important resource for African American history. Originally called the “Union Church of Africans of Baileytown,” Spencer UAME Church in Woodstown honors the memory of its founder, Peter Spencer, a freed slave from Maryland who, like Bishop Richard Allen, successfully established the first independent Black churches in America.  Spencer UAME Church was well-established by 1818 when the core of the present sanctuary was built, placing it among New Jersey’s oldest African American congregations (4).  At least four Black churches and one mutual benefit society were active in Salem County prior to the Civil War.  The County’s free African American community was active and organized, which was essential for the successful operation of the Underground Railroad.

(1) J. Harlan Buzby, John Stewart Rock: Teacher, Counselor, Salem, NJ: Salem County Historical Society, 2002, 80.
(2) Junius P. Rodriguez, Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2007, vol. 2, 241.
(3) During the summer of 2011 the great-granddaughter of Sgt. Edward Richardson secured an official military tombstone for her great-grandfather’s grave. Read the story.
(4) Josephine Jaquett, The Churches of Salem County, New Jersey, Salem, NJ: Salem County Tercentenary Committee, 1964, 42-43.