The James Howe House: A Local Manifestation of the Failure that Was Reconstruction

by Christine Adams Beckett

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The James Howe House, also more commonly known as the (misnomered) slave house at 369 Claremont Avenue, is largely agreed upon as the first piece of property in Montclair to be held by a freed slave. Howe’s story may offer a touchstone of understanding of race relations in this town, which is largely known as having made great strides towards integration, despite  its checkered past. Even though New Jersey is north of the Mason-Dixon line, neither it — nor Montclair — was a stranger to slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude. Holding slaves was commonplace in New Jersey until as late as 1866, when the adoption of the 13th Amendment made it unlawful for one man to hold another as property. In fact, in 1690 nearly all the inhabitants of (a much less populated) northern New Jersey owned slaves, according to historian Simeon Moss (See The Persistence of Slavery and Involuntary Servitude in a Free State (1685-1866)).

Unfortunately, Montclair was not innocent to the slave trade, although no mention of this unseemly aspect to its history is mentioned on the Township website historical page. Yet most of the members of the founding Crane family held slaves as did the Speer family, of what is now Upper Montclair. According to one town historian, Ken Cleary, the English and Dutch settlers encouraged the purchase of slaves to support the foundation of the colony and handle the hard labor. Moss goes even further to argue that the slave trade was actively encouraged by the crown to make for a healthy, hearty and prosperous — albeit amoral – Royal Africa Company.

In the 18th Century, the main port of entry for slaves in eastern New Jersey was at Perth Amboy, now a gritty old port town, about 30 miles south of Montclair. Moss offers a grim picture of their entrepôt:

Negroes were brought from Africa to the West Indes where they were seasoned, that is, acclimated to the more temperate regions, instructed in the rudiments of the English language, and shipped to the American Colonies. On their arrival at the port [of Perth Amboy] the slaves, usually chained in groups of two, were led into a large barracks where they were kept until auctioned. Slaves were usually imported in small numbers, consequently they created no problem at the ports of entry. Here they were sold soon after their arrival.

In later years, as the War for Independence approached and the influence of the Quakers from Western New Jersey and Pennsylvania grew more influential, anti-slavery sentiments became more widespread. In 1792, the Quakers were the first group of people to protest to slavery on humanitarian grounds. Governor Livingston unsuccessfully urged the General Assembly to pass an ordinance for mandatory manumission. He personally freed his own slaves during the Revolution.  He saw avowedly Christian slave holders – those, who he said, “almost idolized liberty” — as particularly odious. (Moss, ibid). There were also economic arguments against slave holding, mainly ones that came from the Raritan and Minisink Valleys, where large plantations were on the out because their owners could no longer afford to keep a large number of slaves.

Howe was purchased by one of the descendants of Montclair’s (formerly Cranetown) founding family, Major Nathaniel Crane, in 1813 for $50. It is unclear if Crane had other slaves at the time or afterward, but the wording of his 1831 last will and testament, as paraphrased here by Philip Doremus in his 1908 book Reminisces of Montclair, suggests that Howe was a survivor of former slaves of the family, and perhaps others were freed:

He made provision for his old colored servant, James Howe, who was a survivor of the former slaves of the family and was known as Uncle Jim. He gave him a good tract of land on the north side of Clairmont Avenue running west from North Mountain Avenue, where he lived many years. A part of the house he occupied is still standing. As children, we used to enjoy visiting the old man who had become blind, and listening to his stories of our ancestry. Major Nathaniel Crane had no children and made the West Bloomfield Presbyterian Church the residuary legatee of his estate, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars. This fund the will requires to be held in trust by the church and the annual income to be used in support of the gospel in this church. He died April 18th, 1833. In recognition of his gift to the church, The Society erected a suitable monument over his and his wife’s graves in the Rosedale Cemetery. (<em>Reminisces of Montclair</em>, by, Philip Doremus. 1908. Excerpt can be found at Rootsweb.)

Although Livingston’s pioneering efforts to outlaw slavery in the Garden State were premature, the Legislature eventually addressed the problem, although it continued to recoil from outright abolition.  According to Moss, New Jersey passed  a series of three Acts with the goal of gradually abolishing slavery by making manumission easier for slave holders.  Through these piecemeal efforts the number of people held in bondage in1850 New Jersey diminished to about 200, still a deplorably large number but an improvement nonetheless.  Crane’s act was not unusual in the grand scheme of things, although it is also speculated that Howe held an entirely more intimate connection to Major Crane in that he may also have been his son. ( “Montclair’s Hidden History,” by, Stacey Patton.)  Doremus is clear to point out that Major Crane had no children with his wife, Hannah.

New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Stacey Patton, who is also a history professor at Montclair State University, says “the house itself is an uncomfortable remnant of history for a town that has regarded itself as the epitome of a progressive suburban racial utopia.” She has unearthed scathing recollections about what is largely construed as the failure of Reconstruction following the Civil War, where the freed slaves were discriminated against out of fear they would swallow up jobs, amongst other cruel and inconceivable arguments. Montclair wears the shame of having segregated restaurants in the 1950s and 60s, although was never considered a Jim Crow town. Churches were also segregated, and blacks were known to “break off from white churches that made black parishioners sit behind black curtains and in basements during services.” (Patton, ibid).  While no one today equates Montclair with the cruel depravations of what we like to think as Southern-style segregation, Jim Crow was alive and well in Monctlair.

This de facto segregation ultimately led to legal action.  In the 1960s a discrimination suit was brought against the Montclair School Board, seeking to correct an unjust imbalance in the composition of the schools. The result is a nationally-lauded magnet system that has attempted to integrate our schools. The concept is that providing a forward-thinking curriculum makes the requisite bussing inconsequential, since what’s at the end of the ride is so appealing. Yet even today there is grumbling about the tracking of students that is unfair to our black population. Integration has not been fully established. (Please see Lise Funderburg’s “Integration Anxiety” from the New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1999).

The James Howe House is a tangible example of where we went wrong in properly addressing the full story of an entire section of our society who was struggling to find their way in an entirely new world after the Civil War.

As recently as 2008, there existed a heated debate about the fate of the physical structure. Formerly known as the Washington Wayside House because General Washington himself passed it on his way to another Crane-held property further down Claremont on the corner of Valley Road during the Revolution, 369 Claremont Avenue is now a rental property belonging to Robert Van Dyk. Van Dyk also owns an adjacent nursing home and expressed an interest in donating the structure to the Montclair Historical Society, freeing up the land for a more substantial, lucrative structure than the 800 square foot James Howe House, which currently houses a mother and her young son.

The Montclair Historical Society wanted to move the structure to its present grounds on Orange Road. And the society has experience with such big moves.  In 1965, the Society moved another Crane House which originally was situated on Glenridge Avenue and had a colorful past. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Crane House was the “Trinity Presbyterian Mission for blacks who left Virginia and North Carolina in search of better lives in this northern suburb.” (Patton ibid). In 1920, it became an African-American YWCA, serving a variety of civic purposes. Patton notes that W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington all spoke here, and most astonishingly, the house even served as a dormitory for black female students who were denied housing on the campus of Montclair State University.

The Historical Society has been criticized amongst many of the more liberal minded citizens of Montclair for having failed to relay this important piece of the Glenridge Avenue Days of the Crane House’s story to visitors patronizing its present site on Orange Road. It instead has been more of a showplace for antiquities; the second floor is now a reconstructed one room school house that caters mostly to students from the elementary schools. Many feel that an opportunity to educate our school children of the full story has been missed.

Most of those against moving the structure simply argue that moving James Howe’s home, bequeathed to him by his master, next to his master’s family house would be a cruel irony. They also contend that moving the house might jeopardize its structural integrity, and that the historical significance is best understood on the original site. Those in favor of moving the house point to the problems with the current site, which is now a busy thoroughfare, its five original comfortable acres swallowed up by suburban development and encroached by other structures, and with poor accessibility and parking.  The Montclair Kimberley Academy owns the land behind it, playing fields destined for improvements over the summer, and leaving the back of the seemingly inconsequential James Howe House closed to the public.

Seeking to preserve this piece of living history, the Township Council passed an ordinance in January  2008 designating both the house and the property as landmarks.   Some contend that this amounts to an unlawful seizure of property, imposing an unreasonable hardship on the present owner who clearly bought the property to provide rental income or to expand his business.

Today, the house looks rather forlorn, not exactly well maintained, but dignified in its old age and significant past. Its 19th century inhabitant was finally given what he must have strove for all his life: liberty. What remains of his former domain has great potential to educate our citizens to the story of our town.  It is a story that may not be easy to hear, but most certainly should be told. The failures of Reconstruction that are evident in the segregation stories in our own seemingly cosmopolitan town, where blacks struggled to find their own way in society without much help. They arrived here against their will and yet were never officially given the start in a free life that they most assuredly deserved.