On Wednesday, February 17, Professor Brooke Hunter of Rider University delivered a webinar to Lawrentians on the history of slavery and abolition in Mercer County. Hunter serves as the Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and is also Associate Professor of History, specializing in American History. In 2018, Hunter was appointed Lawrence Township Historian, where she has utilized the township’s archives to conduct archival research on slavery in the area.
Hunter began her research into this topic through her commitment to educating her students, hoping to expose them to primary source materials in a seminar course. “It opened my eyes to this history,” Hunter said, an eye-opening experience that she has built upon as township historian. Emphasizing the importance of contextualizing current conditions through an understanding of the past, Hunter leaned on township archival records, ranging from census schedules, tax listings, legal documents, and newspaper classifieds, to develop her thesis on Lawrence Township.
Attempting to correct historical misconceptions, Hunter’s main focus drove home that not only did slavery occur in the township, but also that abolition was a lengthier process than most understand. Despite New Jersey’s status as a Northern state, laws like the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 caused slavery to be present in Lawrence as late as 1860. Hunter paired data she collected from archives with individual details found in classifieds and manumission documents, creating a powerful narrative that captured the experience of enslaved people in Lawrence Township.
Hunter also discussed the historical process behind her research, detailing the many limitations she continues to work around due to the scope of her research. Working primarily with archives, Hunter had to face the fact that many documents do not exist; importantly, New Jersey census reports from the first four censuses (1790-1820) were burned in a fire. Another limitation Hunter shared was the way population data was collected centuries ago. On the majority of census reports and tax listings, only males aged 16-50 were counted, leaving out an unknown number of women, children, and elderly. “We can’t always get at all of the answers that we want,” Hunter stated, but Hunter’s limitation uncovered another topic: the value of labor in the United States at the time.
Throughout her presentation, Hunter stressed the importance of not only looking at statistics, stating, “those numbers represent human beings, who were enslaved, who were denied freedom, whose bodies and minds were used by a system in the United States for years.” Hunter’s work is not yet done on this topic, and she continues to pour through the Lawrence Township Archives looking for new documents and evidence. While Lawrenceville’s Heely Scholars
and archivist Jacqueline Haun have worked with Hunter in the past, it was enlightening to have Hunter share her critically important research with the broader community.
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