On Easter morning, Ken Johnston and Deborah Price took a moment, and paused, before entering the doors of the historic Bethel Othello A.M.E. Church in Springtown, Greenwich Township.
Johnston and Price had walked six miles that day, from the center of Bridgeton to the A.M.E. Church in Cumberland County. They had walked 10 miles the day before.
Tears welled in their eyes as they stood quietly, and reverently, before entering the white concrete church built by a free Black community between 1838 and 1841. An older church building “burned down mysteriously,” Bethel Othello’s pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey M. Johnson, later told The Inquirer.
Bethel Othello is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its role as a safe haven along the Underground Railroad routes.
“I was overcome with tears of joy as I felt the spiritual energy of the release some of our ancestors must have felt at finally reaching freedom,” Johnston of Philadelphia recalled this week.
Deborah Price of Willingboro, a volunteer at the Underground Railroad Museum in Eastampton, said the moment left her speechless.
“It’s hard to put into words what those doors meant and just to walk through them,” Price said. “It was what the church represented during that time. It was representing home and safety. The slaves were actually there. It was all those things, coupled with it being Easter.”
“I saw Jesus walking, I saw Harriet (Tubman) walking with her many individuals through those doors. I saw … I just felt like I was home.”
It was the third weekend of walking for Johnston, a “walking artist” who came up with the idea to make a 165-mile trek across South Jersey, from Cape May to Burlington City, retracing the routes of the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses, hidden spaces, and secret routes, where abolitionists or “conductors” provided food, shelter, and other assistance to enslaved Black people who were running to find freedom.
A widespread belief: Harriet was here
Documents show that Harriet Tubman, the most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, worked in Cape May between 1849 and 1852 to earn money to finance her 19 trips to the South to free enslaved people.
But it’s mostly oral tradition that Tubman brought freedom-seekers to Bethel Othello.
“Oh, Harriet was here,” Naomi Morris, a lifelong member of Bethel A.M.E., said with assurance.
Morris pointed to an area below the raised church altar that once had a trap door leading to a secret room below the floor.
The book, The Underground Railroad: Ties That Bound Unveiled, by Emma Marie Trusty, cites historian Francis Bazley Lee who claimed Tubman was seen standing on the Jersey Shore at Greenwich, Cumberland County, waiting to escort fleeing freedom-seekers.
Easter Sunrise Service
Earlier Sunday morning, at 6 a.m., Johnston and Price joined members of the Lower Greenwich Friends (Quaker) Meeting House for an Easter sunrise service near the Cohansey River.
In the months before starting their “Walk to Freedom” in Cape May on April 2, they had driven through the area scouting routes. .
On those trips, they met members of the Quaker community, who told them about the oral histories of the area’s connections to the Underground Railroad.
One of the stories was that as freedom-seekers were ferried across the Delaware Bay, they made their way up the Cohansey to Springtown.
History says that the Quakers, the Lenni-Lenape Native Americans, and the free Black community all worked together to help Black people running from enslavement.
On the Saturday portion of last weekend’s walk, Alvin Q. Corbett of Eastampton, a researcher who lectures on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey, joined Johnston and Price on the walk from Millville to Gouldtown and Bridgeton. There, they met with members of the Trinity A.M.E. Church of Gouldtown, in Bridgeton.
Linda Cuff Goff, whose family goes back to Gouldtown for generations, said she is pleased that Johnston and Price are making this walk.
“I was so impressed that people were willing to give up their time to walk this walk to freedom. There are so many things that people from this area don’t know. They don’t know their ancestors came from these settlements.
Trinity A.M.E. is also on the National Register of Historic Places, and the community it served was cited as “the oldest community of free, landowning Black residents in New Jersey and among the oldest in the nation.”
On Saturday, April 23, Johnston and Price are expected to continue their walk at 8 a.m. from Bethel Othello Church, at 1092 Sheppards Mill Rd, Bridgeton, and make their way toward Salem, a town founded by Quakers. It is expected to be a 16-mile walk.
They will go west on Route 623 (Main Street-Canton Road) until they reach Route 658 (Friendship Road), then travel north/ northwest toward Route 654 (Cross Road) into Quinton and then head west on Route 49 to the Salem County Historical Society, at 83 Market St.
They will continue the walk Sunday morning to Mannington Township and ultimately, to Swedesboro. The public is invited to join both days. The weekend journeys are expected to continue through May 8 when the final destination, in Burlington City, will be reached.
People can follow Johnston’s journey on his Walk to Freedom blog.