The now-bustling spot just feet from the Delaware River looks a lot different than it did nearly 300 years ago, when enslaved Africans, snatched from their homeland, arrived on crowded ships at the Camden docks and were sold at auctions around the city.
A cast-iron historical marker was unveiled Monday at one of three former slave auction block sites in Camden, where historians say more than 800 slaves were sold. Organizers said they want to make sure this painful part of New Jersey’s history is known.
“We are here to bring pride and dignity to those who regularly experienced deprivation,” said Derek Davis, a member of the Camden County Historical Society, who headed the project that he said was necessary “to set history straight.” His great-great-great grandfather was born a slave in Alabama in 1853.
The marker is titled, “Enslaved Africans Once Sold Here.”
It was unveiled on the waterfront near the Adventure Aquarium, once the site of the Cooper’s Point Ferry. That is where many of the slaves were transported from Philadelphia to Camden and forced to work on South Jersey farms.
“We can’t forget about history,” said Camden City Councilman Angel Fuentes, who presented a proclamation from the city to mark the event.
During what was described as an “Ancestral Remembrance Ceremony” Monday, historians shared information about Camden’s involvement in the Middle Passage. They cited slave auction advertisements in Philadelphia newspapers.
The American Weekly Mercury printed notification of Camden’s first two documented slave auctions in 1727. Beginning in the 1750s, slave traders regularly began ferrying Africans to Camden’s docks. In 1751, the Pennsylvania Gazette advertised the sale of a 26-year-old slave at the Federal Street Ferry, then owned by Daniel Cooper.
The ferry services continued until slavery was abolished in the state, the last Northern state to do so. According to the Historical Society, New Jersey, which once had as many as 12,000 slaves, adopted gradual abolition in 1804. It was not until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 — which New Jersey ratified with some reluctance in January 1866 — that the last 16 slaves in the state were forever freed.
Among those attending Monday was the businessman Stedman Graham, the boyfriend of Oprah Winfrey and a native of Whitesboro, a small, predominantly African American community near Cape May. He has pushed for the state to reactivate its Black Arts and Heritage Foundation to preserve black history.
“I love New Jersey," Graham said. “New Jersey is one of the best-kept secrets.”
An indoor ceremony, which lasted more than two hours, was steeped in emotion and cultural traditions. A choir from St. John Baptist Church sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and a musician periodically banged a conga drum. A Native American spiritual leader conducted a libation ceremony, pouring a liquid into a bowl and asking permission from the ancestors to unveil the marker.
The crowded room applauded when Sandra Turner-Barnes, a Historical Society board member, recited a poem that she wrote: “Camden’s Slave Block Tribute to Enslaved Africans.” She is a descendant of Joshua Sadler, a Maryland slave who escaped in 1820 and helped found a community of former slaves in what is now Haddon Township. It reads in part:
"Here, many a Black man hung his head in shame
His family ripped apart, his manhood never the same
Chained, hand and foot and about his neck
Those he dearly loved, he was unable to protect
In his own land, brave and strong as rock,
But not here, on Camden’s cruel Slave Block"
Several speakers said the marker — the second unveiled in Camden — seeks to counter monuments erected around the country dedicated to Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve slavery as a way of life. Another marker will be installed at a third site where slaves were brought into Camden, at the northeast corner of Federal Street and Delaware Boulevard, once the Federal Street Ferry pier.
“So today we recognize the profound suffering inflicted on enslaved people,” said New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way. “We ultimately lay claim to a future that embraces all.”
The first marker was unveiled in 2017 at the former Cooper’s Ferry, site of Camden’s first documented slave auction in 1727, outside what is now an arts center in Johnson Park. In recent years, the Historical Society has flagged 20 sites in Camden with ties to slavery and the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and routes that slaves used to escape.