Black History in Rutherford and Neighboring Towns
Updated: Jul 1
Submitted by Rod Leith, Rutherford Borough Historian
“On Wednesday the African offended, and on Saturday morning he was burned to ashes, and all this was done lawfully and under the British Constitution in 1735.”
This one-sentence summary, penned by historian Frances A. Westervelt, describes the brutal outcome of the trial of a Negro slave, held on August 15, 1735 before the Justices and Freeholders for the County of Bergen in the old courthouse in Hackensack. It is taken from a section titled, “Slavery in Bergen County,” in a three-volume History of Bergen County published in 1923. The following content is bound to scar anyone’s sensitivities, but it is a verbatim account from the actual minutes of the trial.
“Upon information made to William Provoost, Esqr that the negro man of Peter Kipp called Jack, having beaten his sd (sic) master and threatened several times to murder him, his said master and his son and also to burn down his house whereupon the said W. Provoost, Esqr Granted a warrant directed to the Constable to take the said Nego Jack into custody and was committed by the said Wm. Provoost Esqr to Goal (jail).” The negro Jack was tried by three or more Justices and five principal freeholders. He was convicted and sentenced to be burned to death. The burning took place “at some convenient place on the road between the Court House and Quacksack (what is now Hudson Street, near Route 46).”
As difficult as it may seem from reading this narrative, the purported victim in the trial of the slave named Jack was his owner, a farmer named Peter Kipp (sometimes spelled Kip). The Kipps were some of the earliest Dutch settlers of Bergen County. Peter Kipp owned a farm on what was Polifly Road between Hackensack and Boiling Spring (the former name of Rutherford). The Kipps ancestral roots are French, traced to Roeloff (Rolfe) De Kype, when 16th-century religious persecution drove them to Holland. The Kipps can trace their American lineage to the maiden voyage of Henry Hudson, as they were investors in the Dutch East Indian Company.
In modern times, Rutherford’s Kip Avenue was named for Peter Kip, a wealthy farmer who owned the land where Rutherford High School was built in 1922. Roeloff DeKype was an ancestor of the late Walter A. Kipp III (died Dec. 8, 2019), whose great grandfather founded the family law firm in Rutherford in 1899. Perhaps it might be considered poetic justice that Walter Kipp once defended a white member of the Elks named Richard James Zalenka in his successful battle to strike the “whites only” clause from the national organization’s constitution in 1972. Since then the Rutherford Elks lodge has seen numerous blacks join as members, including an African-American female who serves as the lodge chaplain.
Although the outcome for the slave named Jack may seem extreme, there were other cases in the 18th century in which negros in Bergen County were sentenced to be burned to death. There were also cases when blacks were charged with petty crimes, placed in stocks or secured to a whipping post. The whipping post was installed in a public place and the punishment meted would result in painful scourging, all the time in plain view of villagers passing by. There were also demeaning aspects of slavery, such as not permitting slaves to be on the streets without a pass after the evening curfew. In some areas, it was illegal to sell liquor to a slave without their master’s consent. “Dehumanization and cruelty were endemic features of the institution,” states Bernard E. Powers, a social science historian whose research describes such demeaning practices as the forced display of “servant” badges. This practice was common even in this century in places like South Africa before the demise of apartheid.
In the history of the Rutherford vicinity, there are some little-noticed examples of what could be considered blatant humiliation and acts of deprivation against African American slaves. Take for example the story of Schuyler’s Copper Mine, which was situated on the left bank of the Hackensack River, about seven miles west of Jersey City. Arent Schuyler, a Captain in the American Army during the Revolution, moved from Pompton Plains to Lyndhurst-Kingsland (then known as New Barbados Neck) in about 1700. On his tract of land, a discovery of ore was made in 1719 by one of Schuyler’s Negro slaves. The finding was developed by Schuyler into one of New Jersey’s richest copper mines, about one mile southeast of Belleville. Records demonstrate that by 1731 Schuyler’s copper mine produced 1,386 tons of ore that was shipped to the British copper and brass industry. Interestingly, Thomas Francis Gordon’s 1834 “History of New Jersey ” mentioned nothing about the Schuyler copper mine discovery being made by a slave, whose identity was never known. “According to a correspondent with a Newark newspaper, about the time of the copper mine’s discovery, Arent Schuyler offered to reward his Negro slave. He gave him his freedom and told him to make three wishes, which should be granted. The Negro’s first wish was to remain with his master as long as he lived. A second wish was to have all the tobacco he could smoke. His third wish was a dressing gown like his master’s, with brass buttons. These being granted, Schuyler insisted the Negro make a further wish. He pondered the request and said, ‘Well, massa, guess I take a little more tobacco.’”
As time passed and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War brought about America’s Reconstruction Period, scores of former slaves and their off-spring removed to settle in the North, including parts of Bergen County. It has become this community’s reward and material satisfaction that many of these blacks came to Rutherford. And despite the painful past, these African-American men and women invested their life energy and talents in raising families and contributing to their community and churches.
Some former slaves, like Emanuel Cooper, were able to invest in property in Rutherford which enabled him to later support the endeavors of a family member, Christopher Walton, who became Cooper’s brother-in-law. Walton was an industrious church deacon who became one of Rutherford’s most successful carpenter-builders. He built homes throughout Rutherford, including Wheaton Place, where one of the houses he built was leased to Moses and Ella Laval, Ella being the sister of Calvin Spann, aviation hero of the Tuskegee Airmen. Moses Laval, a veteran porter for the Pullman Company, and his wife raised eight children in their home at 153 Wheaton Place (extant). There were six boys who served this country during WWII, including John Robert Laval, who was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Italy. The youngest of two Laval daughters, Florence, was a National Honor Society scholar when she graduated from Rutherford High School.
In spite of his older brother Mark’s advice, Albert Laval pursued his life-long dream to become a Navy seaman. With a recommendation of Gerald M. Tamblyn, for whom Tamblyn Field is named, Albert enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943. Before he enlisted, Albert recalled that in the 1930’s he was the only black kid at Pierrepont School. He later worked in a shoe repair shop at the corner of Pierrepont and Park Avenue, despite the fact that few if any blacks were hired in those days for employment on Rutherford’s Park Avenue. He achieved the rank of coxswain, or chief petty officer, and boilermaker on a Navy ship. But that was not his dream post. “They (the Navy) didn’t want blacks on board the ship unless it was in the kitchen,” he said. Nevertheless, with his five brothers, Albert made Rutherford proud. People like US Senator Cory Booker saluted their bravery and selflessness. They marveled at the fact that Moses and Ella Laval could say they were the only black parents in the United States to have six sons who served simultaneously during WWII.
Probably one of the most remarkable examples of a man who overcame enslavement was a horseman, turned gardener named Lafayette Hoag. Hoag and his wife, Harriett Henon Hoag, settled in Rutherford in 1868 and raised a family of seven children, including their youngest, a boy they named Rutherford who tragically died in infancy. The couple bought property from Henry Bell’s Rutherford Heights Association and built an exquisite L-shaped Italianate-style house on Donaldson Avenue (extant). The house was celebrated by Rutherford preservationists, designating it on the borough’s Historic Sites Inventory. Unfortunately, findings for the designation were marred by some sloppy genealogy. Lafayette Hoag was the son of unknown Virginia slaves (not Georgian). His wife, Harriett, was not from Jamaica, but was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA.
There are several milestones to count in looking back at accomplishments by the Rutherford Hoags (modern spelling is Hoage). Beginning with Lafayette, we have a marvelous Civil War story that showed deep gratitude to the Union Army. Captain Alonzo Lorenzo Mabbett, Company 1, 24th Connecticut Infantry, had been severely wounded at the Battle of Port Hudson. Hoag, who had somehow escaped enslavement as a youth and had relocated to Baton Rouge, encountered Capt. Mabbett at a military hospital where he attended to the wounded soldier and is credited with saving his life. Once Mabbett recovered, the two men traveled together to the captain’s hometown of Rochester, where Hoag was welcomed and credited with Capt. Mabbett’s full recovery. It turned out that members of the Mabbett family, who were Quakers, had served as conductors with the Underground Railroad. Their contributions to helping run-away slaves were reported by the North Star, the newspaper published by Frederick Douglas.
Having come from strong parentage, the Hoag children made their way and helped put Rutherford on the map. The second youngest son, David Brinkerhoff Ivison Hoag (named for Lafayette’s employer, David B. Ivison, the builder of Iviswold), was an honors student at Rutherford high school and became the first black to graduate with a medical degree from Long Island University, in Brooklyn. He later opened a medical practice in Harlem, New York. His interest in tennis led to his co-founding the American Negro Tennis Association.
David’s younger brother, George L. Hoag, journeyed to St. Paul, Minnesota where he helped found the Minnesota Home Guard of the WWI Sixteenth Battalion. George Hoage became a State House Messenger whose manner and skills led him to become Secretary to ten Minnesota governors, beginning with Gov. John A. Johnson in 1906 to Gov. Harold Stassen in 1939.
Joseph Alonzo Hoag, the Hoags’ oldest son, was a mechanic and plumber, employed by the New York Tribune Newspaper. In 1900 his older sister, Lillian, purchased a lot at 90 Montross Avenue from William J. Singerland, where Joseph built his home. This was in a time when there were no blacks living on Montross Avenue. Blacks predominantly found it necessary to settle in one of two sections of Rutherford: the Spring Street area (now Eastern Way), in a mix of residences and small button and millinery factories; and the Wood Street section, in homes parallel to Grove and Elm, where Mount Ararat Baptist Church was established. There have been exceptions, such as the Hoag House on Donaldson, disparagingly referred to as the “slave house;” and the houses built by Chris Walton on Wheaton Place.
On October 22, 1900, Joseph Hoag and Clara Wright Keller of Brooklyn were married in his house at 90 Montross Avenue. Reverend J. F. Maschman of Rutherford Methodist-Episcopal Church performed the ceremony. Besides Joseph’s parents and two sisters, the ceremony was attended by several white guests, including Mrs. William Slingerland and the florist August Nadler and his daughter, Mabel. Nadler and Lafayette Hoag had worked together, caring for the lawns and gardens on the estate of David Ivison at Iviswold. Joseph and Clara’s wedding announcement was prominently posted on page one of The Rutherford American newspaper. Joseph was only 42 when he died in 1913. Another milestone of sorts came when he was buried in a corner section of Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, where mostly Rutherford’s prominent white citizens were interred. There was a small section where blacks were buried around 1913, but as time went on, particularly 1975, many more blacks were buried at Hillside. More recently, several of Rutherford’s black family members, including Hendricks, Flippin, and Sisco, have been buried at Hillside.
It was mentioned earlier that George Hoage, son of a former slave, served in Minnesota’s Home Guard during WWI. As a lieutenant in the 16th Battalion of the all-black Home Guard, Hoage directed services geared to disaster relief from floods and major fires, much of it in support of the Red Cross. In this period, there were at least fourteen African American men of Rutherford who served in the military services during WWI. These included two sons of Thaddeus L. Marshall of Elm Street, a black street peddler from Charleston, S.C., who is best known as the inspiration for the William Carlos Williams internationally known poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” His sons, Milton and Hiram Marshall, served in the Pioneer Infantry in France. Milton was a private in Company E of the Pioneers and Hiram held the rank of sergeant in the Headquarters Company. These were African-American units that supplied medical materials to the troops and performed such vital services as road and bridge repairs. Morgan Yates, who promoted the organization of the Rutherford black American Legion, the Murray Hodge Post 453, was a decorated gunnery sergeant in the 309th Infantry of the US Army. His unit served under fire in the Battle of Chateau Thierry and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
Click here for a link to a Rutherford Historic Narrative video about the Murray Hodge Lodge.
Rutherford’s World War I Monument, dedicated 100 years ago this past May 31, bears the names of 19 soldiers and sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice. Two were African American soldiers; Mark Eugene Murray, a U.S. Army private who died in service in France, and William Coleman Hodge, an Army stevedore who died of tuberculosis at Camp Stuart in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Much has been learned from recent research about the service and tragic death of Private Hodge, who due to war-time conditions and the family circumstances, was buried at East Ridgelawn Cemetery under the misspelled name of Houge and without a suitable grave marker. Fortunately, after these conditions became known, American Legion Post 453 corrected this slight on Private Hodge by providing a proper military marker.
In May of 1992, a large group of blacks held a reunion for those who traced their heritage to Rutherford’s Eastern Way neighborhood. The reunion group, known as T.E.A.R., commemorated the lives of their African-American parents and grandparents. In doing so, they made a special tribute to the black churches of Rutherford and East Rutherford --- John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mount Ararat Baptist Church, and St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, the latter of which was located off Meadow Road on what was Sayers Street, next to what is now Harold Wall Field. “These churches were very instrumental in the lives of the area residents,” according to the statement of the Eastern Way Area Reunion. It concluded, “No accomplishment in town could have been achieved without a strong faith in God.”