November 1118, 1999
A Journey to Springtown
The all-but-forgotten New Jersey village that changed African-American history and the Philadelphia woman helping to bring its story to the world.
by Stephen Graff
It begins with a church.
To the casual observer, it seems ordinary enough. A small white building with the tiniest belfry. The bell seems frozen, as if its joyous clanging has somehow been interrupted.
It is this church that started the whole thing for Laura.
Laura Aldrich is 66. It is late morning, an unusually warm and hazy Sunday. The sounds of children playing can be heard. Laura is preparing herself to take the trip to Springtown again, fastening her last button, looking in the mirror and smiling. She is dressed in her Sunday best. The little church waits for her.
As she climbs into her Camry, she looks around at the Germantown neighborhood that she calls home. She has lived here for seven years. But today, like so many days, she is taking a long drive to another home.
"It has consumed my life," she says. "Its an obsession. Its something that has to be completed. Theres so much that is in my head. I have to get this done."
She crosses the Ben Franklin into New Jersey, then takes 55 to the outskirts of Vineland. The country changes quickly from suburban sprawl to farm fields, pine barrens and old haunted towns.
There are no ATMs out here. No traffic. No shopping malls. The only sounds are the quiet rustle of the breeze through stretches of pine and oak forest; the calls of wild turkeys and bobwhites searching the underbrush for food; the trickling of saltwater over fertile flatlands and paved rural roads when the tide begins to roll in.
Springtowns church, more than an hours drive from Philadelphia, wasnt always a favored destination for Laura. As a child, attending services with her mother, she couldnt wait to leave.
"It was hot, very uncomfortable. The windows were wide open, and I can remember swatting the wasps away with my fan."
Her mother wanted to show young Laura something about the way Springtown used to be by bringing her to the church; but the message was lost on her daughter. As a young woman, Aldrich vowed shed never go back.
"I wanted to get as far away from it as I could," she says. She had plans for bigger, better things. She wanted to put the rural, hardscrabble past behind her, and left Springtown in 1954.
"I didnt want to work the fields, or worse, work in someones house," she says. "I wanted to make something of my life."
She moved to Philadelphia, and after several different jobs landed a management position at Breyers Ice Cream. During that time, she got married, raised a family, bought a house with her husband Lewis in West Oak Lane and thought little of her New Jersey town. She didnt think about the towns history. She wasnt interested in the reasons her mother had been so drawn to that little church.
But one day, in the spring of 1994, the one-room church pulled her back. And Springtown, NJ a little-known but important landmark in African-American history would never be the same.
The roads to Springtown are many.
Lauras journey takes her down the narrow stretches of rural 658 and 623, past tiny villages with resonant names like Jericho and Shiloh. Just beyond the town of Canton, a bridge spans the rushing waters of Stowe Creek. Fishing families hold their poles over the railings of the bridge, pulling in white perch, catfish and the occasional largemouth.
The creek doesnt look like much. But behind its mundane appearance lies a dramatic history: This little waterway was a vital link in the Underground Railroad.
A secret network set up by Quakers, white abolitionists and free blacks, the Underground Railroad was the road to freedom for many hundreds of enslaved families. Some moved from southern points through the city of Wilmington, then northward across the Mason-Dixon line and into Philadelphia, where "railroad conductors" such as William Still, the African-American industrialist and author, intercepted them and guided them on their way.
But hundreds of others made another journey that started in Dover, DE. From there, they made a harrowing 30-mile trip across the wide, turbulent waters of the Delaware Bay to New Jerseys southwestern coast, to the shore town of Greenwich and beyond to their final destination: Springtown.
Bounty hunters soon learned of the Delaware Bay crossings, and within a few years would lie in wait in their own wooden skiffs. In response, conductors developed an elaborate system of signals and warnings to ensure the safety of the travelers. Blue and yellow beacons, the nautical emblem of the UR, were held aloft by watchmen on the marshy shores. Oarsmen would wait, urging their passengers not to make a sound, hidden by the reeds and salt hay that grow thickly along the edges of Stowe Creek. When the watchmen signaled that all was clear, the oarsmen would guide their boats back out to the sea and along the shoreline.
Reaching Ambury Hill
Past Stowe Creek, another five miles on, Lauras drive takes her to the former site of the Othello African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, burned by arsonists in 1838. A beautiful cemetery sits on the hill next to the churchs original location.
She parks her car on the side of the road, looks both ways before crossing, then climbs the hill into the cemetery. This parcel of land is where Springtown got its start. Jacob Bryant, a free-person from Massachusetts, and Charles Lockerman purchased Ambury Hill in 1810 from Quaker Thomas Maskell. The price was $100. They built their church here, and after the fire rebuilt it a short distance away; the village of Springtown grew up around the second church.
On most Sunday afternoons, a relative of Lauras stands among the gravestones of Ambury Hill. His name is Bunny Robinson. Hes the caretaker here.
Like Laura, Bunny used to be uninterested in the particulars of Springtown.
One day, his destiny would change.
"I was asked to come in look after these grounds, " he says. "I was reluctant." He saw Ambury Hill as an overgrown mess tree limbs everywhere, grass overgrown. Until he spent one weekend, then another. His riding mower uncovered more gravesites. What started out as a weekend job turned into a calling. And what seemed to be no more than a high-grass meadow surrounded by trees was revealed as a collection of names memorialized in stone.
There are African-American men buried here who served in the black regiments during the Civil War. Two men, Edward Staten and John Williams, served in the 22nd Colored Regiment, which saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War as it made its way across the fields of Virginia. Many of Springtowns men signed up for the Colored Regiments, serving as far away as Texas. Most came back alive.
It is also believed that Lenni Lenapes are buried here, though their graves are not marked. Many of Springtowns original residents were of mixed race due to intermarriage with local Lenapes. Lauras great-grandmother was Native American; the traces of Lauras Indian ancestry can be seen in her facial features and in her long, flowing hair.
The graves of Ambury Hill are marked by engraved stones or by pieces of sandstone dug into the sandy ground.
"This is just overwhelming. I can see them. I can feel them, " says Aldrich, standing just above the docks. "When I come here, I look across the water, and I can just imagine people, coming across the water, escaping slavery."
"Its an African tradition," Robinson explains, as he shows me the sandstones. Then he points to the trees. "At every grave, a tree was planted." We look up into upper branches of a walnut. Its been struck by lightning, says Robinson. More than once. Its being strangled by a thick, stubborn vine. Yet it survives.
"When I stand here," says Robinson, a large, youthful-looking 42-year-old, "I can feel their protection."
Laura pulls away from Ambury Hill and continues down the road toward Greenwich, an old Quaker village founded in 1685. Each time she comes to these places, she discovers something new.
Discoveries about the past her own and Springtowns triggered the process that led her back to her hometown.
Throughout her young adult life, Laura had learned pieces of African-American history that she later found out to be untrue. "I had thought that all blacks were slaves," she says. Out of curiosity, she went to libraries in Philadelphia and found out that entire communities of free blacks existed before the Civil War. "In the early 1970s," she says, "I started thinking: Where did I come from, and what else were they telling me that wasnt true?"
By the late 1980s, she had begun an exhaustive genealogy project. She discovered that she was descended from Springtowns founders, Jacob and Abel Bryant. She asked her brother to help her take her notes and turn them into a written report. But in 1989, he died before he could finish the project. Laura retired from Breyers in 1992, and decided that she had to finish what she started.
"I wanted to step back and put myself in that time," she says. Her husband, Lewis, was very supportive of her during the years that her obsession took hold. "I would share my genealogy research with him, and he would start analyzing it."
Greenwich seems locked in time; many of its original structures remain. The town is quiet and dignified, as if proud of its place in history. Laura parks along Ye Olde Greate Street and stops in front of one of the oldest houses in the village. Its a house that looks every bit of its 316 years, yet it does not slouch.
She moves to the lawn that stretches to the rolling waters of the Cohansey River below. Old buttonwood trees, twisting and gnarled, stand in a group around her. This was the house where the Sheppards, a Quaker family instrumental in the Greenwich line of the Underground Railroad, lived. The Sheppards owned the docks that buttressed the tidal waters of the Cohansey. Onto these wooden docks, enslaved peoples from all over the southern states wearily climbed and stood.
They looked in awe at Greenwich and breathed in the saltwater air of freedom. From this point, many would be taken on to Springtown.
"This is just overwhelming. I can see them. I can feel them, " says Aldrich, standing just above the docks. The sun is burning in the hazy sky.
"When I come here, I look across the water, and I can just imagine people, coming across the water, escaping slavery."
Though founded in 1810, it wasnt until the 1840s that Springtown became a major destination for former slaves. Jacob Bryant worked closely with the Sheppards to establish the connection between the two towns. Did he have a master plan?
Laura thinks he did. She imagines that Springtowns founders saw an opportunity for a community of freedom here. They knew that Greenwich, to the west, was a line of defense. Slave catchers would be hard-pressed to enter this tidal, marshy country en masse.
"The Bryants did this because it was something that needed to be done," says Aldrich. "It was a job, and they did it."
According to Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program of the New Jersey Historical Commission, Springtown was "terribly important to fugitive slaves." A community created and overseen by African Americans, like Springtown or Lawnside, NJ, made apprehension more difficult, says Wright. These towns provided sanctuary, and as time went on they became crucibles of black identity places where great leaders like Harriet Tubman and William Still would visit (both stayed in Springtown for a time), and where African American communities could establish themselves as social and political entities.
Yet the journey to Greenwich and Springtown was not risk-free. As slave hunters became more aware of the Greenwich Line, the journey grew to be as dangerous as the trek across the Mason-Dixon. But there are many narratives of slaves who made it to freedom in Springtown. One of the most powerful is the story told by Samuel Ringgold Ward.
Ward, who was known as the "Black Daniel Webster" because of his great oratory skills, was saved from slavery by a courageous mother. A frail infant, he was nursed to health by his mother, Ann, but as he grew older and stronger she knew he would be sold. "We must take this child and run away," she said one day to her reluctant husband, William.
It was the aspiration of every enslaved person to "get the best directions" and set out for a free state with a sizable Quaker population. Ann and William followed a trail that would lead them to freedom, but the journey would be long and terrifying. Like all the stories told by thousands of escaped slaves, there were dangers at every turn. Bounty hunters would hover like phantoms on the bridges. Many slaves never made it. The Wards were lucky.
"There were no slave holders in that part of the state," wrote Samuel Ward. "When slave catchers came prowling about, the Quakers threw all manner of peaceful obstacles in their way, while the Negroes [of Springtown] made it a little hot for their comfort." Translation: Springtowns male residents were known to walk the many entrances into Springtown with rifles in hand. They had nothing to fear, so they stopped bounty hunters white and black alike with the muzzles of their guns.
story continued here
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