Researcher dedicated to S.B.’s history of slavery

Roads are named for rich owners, but slaves lie below unmarked stones


Staff Writer

Clockwise from top - The shorter portion of this decaying building, located on what is now known as the Titus farm, Benson Road, is believed to have once served as quarters for slaves. The Dean Cemetery, where many members of the prominent, slave-owning family are buried, was only recently rediscovered. These stones are believed to mark the burial sites for slaves belonging to the Dean family. The remains of  slave Thomas Titus' headstone are now stored on a shelf in South Brunswick's public works building.  Clockwise from top – The shorter portion of this decaying building, located on what is now known as the Titus farm, Benson Road, is believed to have once served as quarters for slaves. The Dean Cemetery, where many members of the prominent, slave-owning family are buried, was only recently rediscovered. These stones are believed to mark the burial sites for slaves belonging to the Dean family. The remains of slave Thomas Titus’ headstone are now stored on a shelf in South Brunswick’s public works building. James Shackleford lives for the dead. His passion, ever since 2001, has been finding out anything and everything he can about the historic graveyards of South Brunswick and unraveling the stories behind the people who are buried there.

In particular, he has taken a keen interest in slave graveyards, of which, according to Shackleford, there are many. With over five years’ worth of experience in historical research on this subject, he has inadvertently become an expert on the history of slavery in Central Jersey and by extension on the myriad slave-owning families in South Brunswick.

PHOTOSBY CHRIS GAETANO PHOTOSBY CHRIS GAETANO Slavery was introduced to New Jersey in force around 1660, when the Dutch began to bring them to the New World from the West Indies, using Perth Amboy as one of the major trading posts. In the early 1800s, when the state became the last in the North to gradually abolish slavery, there were about 12,000 statewide.

The history of slavery in South Brunswick, according to Shackleford, reads like a street atlas of the township. Residents drive down Davidsons Mill Road every day, but most are unaware that the mill used slave labor. Beekman Road is not just a way to get to Route 1, but a legacy of a prominent land-owning and slave-owning family in South Brunswick. If any residents of the Deans section of South Brunswick ever wondered who the Deans were, the answer is a farming family that made its money using slaves.

“Almost every prominent family in South Brunswick had slaves,” Shackleford said during a presentation on his research at the South Brunswick Senior Center Feb. 23.

Other places in South Brunswick named for slave-owning families include Petty Road and Cortelyous Lane, though these are only the ones Shackleford could rattle off the top of his head at the time, adding he could probably think of more if need be.

Shackleford goes up to the Dean Cemetery, which was actually lost until recently, about once a month. The ground is soft and full of muck on the walk to the gates of the graveyard, the grass and soil recently stripped by a developer, leaving only mud behind. On the walk through the brownish-orange field, Shackleford told of an experience with a descendant of the original Dean family, who lives in Montana.

Shackleford, searching through records about the Dean family and their cemetery, off Major Road, found mention of a descendant, Peggy, who lives in Pulson, Mont.

“I looked it up on the Internet and I found one Peggy in Pulson, and I wrote her a letter and I said, ‘You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I found this cemetery and I’m pretty sure it’s your family and I’d like to talk to you about this. Could you write me back?’”

After about a month or so, Shackleford received a surprised response in the mail, detailing a coincidence.

“When she got the letter, she called me up and said, ‘I’m on my way to New Jersey in three weeks to find my family cemetery, and you give me this letter asking if I want to see my family cemetery. I don’t even know where it is,’” said Shackleford.

The two met at a diner, with her husband and children and grandchildren as well, and the group left to see where the cemetery was.

“It was the best experience of my life, to see someone who is 70 years old find her family after all these years,” said Shackleford.

The pair are still friends and write to each other frequently.

The Dean Cemetery is where generations upon generations of Deans are buried, with the first burial taking place in 1787 and the last one in 1913. The property is broken up into three sections. One is for members of the Dean family, another is for friends of the family and the third is the one Shackleford is really interested in.

On the ground are several stones in a row and, at first glance, look like any moderately heavy stones. But if one tries to move them about, they will notice they’re quite clearly planted in the ground. One of the stones has the crude initials “ELH” carved into it. Shackleford said that in this section – for the ones who were neither friends nor family – were slaves to the Dean family.

This was confirmed with a visit to the South Brunswick Library, where he pored over wills and other documents to reveal the extensive slave-owning history of the Dean family. It was this that prompted him to wonder what exactly the stories of the slaves in South Brunswick were, leading him on his quest to research as much as he could about the local slave trade.

“Being a resident of South Brunswick for 20 years, I had never heard about slavery in our town,” said Shackleford.

According to Shackleford, one of the most difficult things about researching local history about slavery was the nature of slavery itself at the time. Since slaves were considered possessions instead of people, there were seldom last names in records, making a paper trail all the more difficult to follow. Shackleford is confident that there was more slavery in South Brunswick than he knows about, due to this difficulty in research.

“I run into the same problems in the wills because it will say ‘slave named Sam,’ but it doesn’t give us a last name, so it’s a VanDyke slave, his name is Sam. That’s where the work comes in because then you gotta figure out what the name was … and it’s really like finding a needle in a haystack, and it’s a lot of work,” said Shackleford.


Slave-turned landowner

Still, there are some stories that were able to be salvaged. One which holds particular interest for Shackleford is the story of Thomas Titus, a freed slave whose farm sustained his children and his children’s children. His original owner was a member of the Beekman family. The farm, located today off Benson Road in Kendall Park, is also where, somewhere, he is buried.

Titus bought the land in 1817 from the VanDyke family. The VanDykes were another land-owning family that used slave labor and, in fact, it is said that the graves of these slaves are still somewhere on that property, though best guesses at this point have their locations pinned somewhere underneath a paved road. The structures they lived in are, however, still intact and are hundreds of years old. On March 1, a Planning Board meeting was expected to begin the debate over whether to permit a luxury housing development on the farm.

Over the years, more and more land was purchased by his family until, eventually, the plot stretched for 11 acres. Alan Hooper, who was the grandson of Titus, eventually sold the land in 1870, to a descendant of the family that had owned his grandfather, where it went through a long series of owners before the township parks department came to acquire it in 1989.

After everything the land went through, people still don’t know exactly where Titus is buried. The headstone still exists, but it’s currently sitting in the public works building, where, clearly, he is not buried.

“Our men were working, maintenance cutting … and they found the thing and, at that time, we brought it here. We didn’tknow what to do with it, and we were afraid that if we left it at the site, who knows what would have happened to it. It could have disappeared completely,” said Alan Aler, a South Brunswick public works official.

The headstone had, apparently, already been wrecked by vandals long ago. It lies in two pieces in the public works building. It is a large, gray slab that is still fairly legible. It is the hope of Shackleford to eventually have it on display somewhere, perhaps in the library. The costs of repairing it, apparently, are prohibitive.

The Titus farm today is composed of several buildings that look like they’ve seen better days. Paint that was once yellow peels and rusts. Inside is a wagon, which could be up to 100 years old, with its wheels half-covered in dust that has accumulated over the decades.

It is here that Shackleford took a direct descendant of the Titus family. A 95-year-old man from New Brunswick where, apparently, many of the descendants eventually moved, he still had a sharp mind and knew the approximate area where the body was buried.

“He actually showed me where the headstone was and he also informed me that there were two other mounds. He believed there were three graves there, so we now know pretty much the approximate location,” said Shackleford, pointing in a direction. “It’s pretty much under that tree.”

He is also planning to talk to a woman who said she grew up in a nearby farm and had known where the headstone was as well. Shackleford hopes that, eventually, the county will put up a plaque to indicate that Titus was buried there.

Other slave cemeteries he has found include what has come to be called the Chinese Cemetery, where a Chinese family allowed slaves to be buried, away from the bodies of white people who felt offended at the idea. In the 1940’s, however, the person who eventually came to own the land thought the headstones didn’t look good on his land and had a backhoe remove them. Now there are many unmarked graves in that area.

Shackleford is still researching and still trying to find out everything he can about the slave history of South Brunswick. He is currently trying to petition the county to put up a historical marker at the Titus farm and has been searching for the site where a slave frequently referred to in records as “Susan” is buried. While he has tried and failed many times, the same used to be said for Deans Cemetery, and thus, Shackleford is optimistic.

His family has learned to take his hobby in stride through the years.

“I think in the beginning they thought I was a little loopy because … when I started all this, thank God, I was working 2-10 [p.m.], so there were days I would spend until 1 [p.m.] researching and then go right to work. And I wasn’t getting paid, I wasn’t being asked, it was just the thing I wanted to do myself, and so it was a little difficult for my family to understand exactly ‘why are you wasting all this time doing this?’ But now, now that I think it’s becoming apparent that the information is important and pertinent … they’re kind of going, ‘Oh, dad isn’t as goofy as we thought he might have been at the time,’” Shackleford said.

“It’s funny. I’m 47 years old and I just found myself. I found what I love to do and I feel blessed because of that,” said Shackleford.