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Black History Month in Matawan: Underground Railroad, Professional Athlete

Before Black History Month ends, make sure you know Matawan's unique Black History.

February is Black History Month and it's often a time when the country reflects on the accomplishments of national leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. But did you know that Matawan has a number of note-worthy links to our nation's history?

Al Savolaine, a member of the Matawan Historical Society and the Matawan Historic Sites Commission, shared these five bits of local history. 

1. Underground Railroad

We've all heard about the Burrowes' Mansion role in commerce, the Revolutionary War and even the Matawan Journal, but the historic home on Main Street in Matawan also served as a stop on the underground railroad.

The mansion was built in 1723 and changed hands a number of times. It's not clear to historians who owned the home while it served as a safe haven for slaves escaping from the south to Canada. There is information that indicates a black minister was a tenant renting the mansion in the 19th century, however there is no solid indication that he was living at the home during the time it was used as a hiding place.

People using the underground railroad would have to hide in a small cubby over the back stairs leading from the second floor to the backyard in the mansion. Quarters were tight but the journey was worth it to slaves seeking the freedom they deserved.

2. St. James African American Methodist Episcopal Church

The St. James African American Methodist Episcopal Church was a primarily black church founded in Matilda Conover's home on Atlantic Avenue. The church was started with Conover and her father, Richard Little, in 1843. Five years later, property was donated to the church and a church and cemetery were constructed. It stayed in the same spot until 1897, when the old Mount Pleasant School building was picked up and moved to 100 Atlantic Avenue, where the church stands today. 

The cemetery behind the old church was mostly abandoned after the church moved. Over the years, many of the grave markers faded or were washed away by time. In 1997, it was incorporated as a historic site in Matawan. A few years later, the borough conducted a archaeological study and discovered that there were at least 65 graves in the cemetery. In 2007, the historical society held a dedication ceremony and dedicated a monument to the cemetery.

Although many of the graves are unmarked and there is no plot map to relocate and identify the people buried there, it is known that four black men who served in the Union Army are buried there: William Shemo, James H. Riley, William Jamison and Charles Hendrickson.

3. Freed Slave

Jane Willet was purchased as a slave by Samuel Stillwell. Stillwell served in a number of important roles in town throughout his life, including as mayor. 
When slavery ended in New Jersey, people who were of an older age, while free, had the choice to remain with the family they served. Willet, who was known as Aunt Jenny to the Stillwell family, stayed. 

Willet died in 1881 at the age of 79 and the funeral service was held at the Methodist Church on Main Street. She was laid to rest alongside the Stillwell family in Rose Hill Cemetery. During her life, she worked for four generations of the family.

4. Local Boy Goes Pro

A local athlete made it all the way from Matawan to the National Football League in the 1980s. Jim Jeffcoat graduated from Matawan Regional High School and was the number one draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys in 1983.

He played for about fifteen years in total with the Cowboys and with the Buffalo Bills before getting hired as a coach for the Cowboys in 1998.

5. Famous Broadway Star

Juanita Long Hall was born in Keyport but when on to become a leading African American Broadway star in the 1950s. She enjoyed a varied career and also performed on TV and the silver screen.

Hall earned a Tony Award for her work as Bloody Mary and went on to be Madam Tango in the 1954 House of Flowers musical.

Hall was laid to rest in the Midway Green Cemetery on Reids Hill Road in Aberdeen.

Tell us: Do you have any local Black History to share about Matawan and Aberdeen? Post below in our comments section.

tcottingham February 27, 2013 at 02:00 PM
Interesting article. One correction: Jim Jeffcoat was a number one draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys, not Jim Jefco.
Chelsea Naso (Editor) February 27, 2013 at 02:10 PM
Thank you! This has been updated.

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