Records include emancipation documents of several slaves, incorporation papers for local institutions
TRENTON, N.J. -Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes and Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello were joined by New Jersey Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells, other area leaders, and scholars today at the Public Records Room of the Clerk's Office to unveil newly discovered historical documents, including several 19th Century slave manumissions.
The records, the oldest dating to 1839, document the transfer of three slaves who lived in Mercer County from property to free citizens. A manumission is the record of freedom for slaves.
Other records found also hold extreme significance in Mercer County history, including the incorporation records for the New Jersey State Normal School Association, the institution assembled to raise funds for the Trenton Normal School, now The College of New Jersey; the incorporation records for John A. Roebling & Sons, the world renowned, Trenton-based manufacturers specializing in suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge; and the power of attorney reports from Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, a relative of the French emperor. The documents were discovered several months ago during an inventory project by Anna Shifton, a records specialist hired by Sollami Covello.
"These records indicate just how important Mercer County is when studying the history of New Jersey and also the United States," County Executive Hughes said. "We are privileged to be able to touch history, whether it be through records like these or by visiting the many sites that played vital roles in the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Civil War."
Hughes thanked Sollami Covello for her commitment to preserving Mercer County history and Secretary of State Wells for agreeing to the critical task of accepting some of the documents for permanent preservation in the state archives.
"We, as a County already rich in history, are incredibly fortunate to have discovered these remarkable records," said Sollami Covello. "For too long slavery and discrimination separated the people of the United States. However, we must use these slave manumissions to remind ourselves of the equality conceived in the American dream."
Shifton, initially drawn to the word "slave" in Miscellaneous Papers Volume A, investigated and ultimately discovered the records for three manumissions: Priscilla, 36 years old, in 1839; Nanet Harris in 1849; and Solomon, of Hopewell, in 1859.
According to Dr. Herman Beavers, an African American studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the manumitted individuals claimed their freedom through the 1804 "Act for the [Gradual] Abolition of Slavery," which mandated freedom for female slaves at the age of 21 and male slaves at the age of 25. Even though the New Jersey legislature passed the Act for abolition in 1804, slavery was not eliminated for several decades. Dr. Beavers speculates that the discrepancy, between the 1804 Act and the manumission records found in the Clerk's Office, is due to the role of slavery in the urbanization and industrialization of New Jersey and 19th Century public opinion on slavery. New Jersey permanently abolished slavery in 1846.
Also attending the press conference were Mercer County Freeholder Anthony Carabelli, state Chief of Archives, Joseph Klett, Professor Roderick McDonald of Rider University and Dr. Joseph Myers of Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.
Sollami Covello expressed the importance of continued record preservation.
"It is important that we preserve all of these historical documents for future generations," said Sollami Covello, who pledged upon taking office in January 2006 to modernize the Clerk's Office. "Today, we must commit ourselves, with the aid of our modern resources, to a greater standard of preservation. The State Archives, a short walk from our office, is a better home for the historical documents because of their modern resources and professional staff."
The Mercer County Clerk's Office is voluntarily transferring the records to the State Archives, a first in the long partnership between the two branches. At the State Archives, the records will receive the level of protection they deserve. According to Ellen Callahan, Collection Manager for the Archives, the destination for the historic County records is a state-of-the-art facility, equipped with light, temperature and humidity regulation and professional archival staff to preserve the records for researchers.
Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells is responsible for the promotion and preservation of New Jersey history. With an extensive background in public service, she advocates for many causes, including history of which she oversees the Department of Archives and Records Management and the New Jersey Historical Commission.
Klett, Chief of Archives, is charged with the preservation of New Jersey's historical public records. Under his leadership, the State Archives has expanded to 33,000 cubic feet of paper records and 28,000 reels of microfilm and recently sent New Jersey's Bill of Rights to Philadelphia for digital scanning.
The director of the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Herman Beavers specializes in 19th and 20th Century African American literature. Beavers is also a published poet with works appearing in the Black American Literary Form and the Cincinnati Poetry Review.
A professor at Rider University, Roderick McDonald focuses on African American history with publications on slavery in the United States and Latin America.
Dr. Joseph Myers is a History professor at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a member of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities organization.
For more information about the Public Records Room, please visit the Mercer County Clerk's Office at 209 S. Broad St in Trenton or the County website at http://nj.gov/counties/mercer/.