Once a refuge for runaway slaves, the deteriorating white wood-frame building just off Elbo Lane has come to symbolize the rich history of a former African American hamlet in Mount Laurel.
The Rev. Terrell Person, pastor of neighboring Jacob's Chapel A.M.E. Church, wants to make sure that history is saved for future generations. He has launched an ambitious capital campaign to preserve the landscape of the Burlington County property.
New Jersey Preservation, a nonprofit that advocates to preserve historic neighborhoods and sites, last month declared the Colemantown schoolhouse building one of the 10 most endangered sites in the state. The designation seeks to draw attention to irreplaceable historic resources that are in imminent danger of being lost.
Two other sites in South Jersey also made the list: Camden High School, set to be demolished and replaced with a new building, and the vacant Brick's Mincemeat Factory in the Crosswicks section of Chesterfield, Burlington County, that has been listed for sale as a tear-down.
"We usually find one or two a month that people call us about," said Margaret Hickey, who heads the 10 Most Endangered Committee for New Jersey Preservation. "It's an ongoing issue in all kinds of communities."
Person and his congregation of about 80 members have scrambled to preserve the former Underground Railroad stop and an adjoining building. Both buildings were placed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
They hope to raise about $250,000 to begin a project to restore the Colemantown Meeting House to its 19th-century appearance, build a visitor center, and conduct regular tours to teach the history that surrounds the property. Person also wants to identify some of the unmarked graves in the chapel's cemetery. Preservation New Jersey estimates the total project will cost $1.3 million.
"If we lose this property, what happens?" asked Person. "This is a treasure. We are standing on somebody else's shoulders."
The former meetinghouse and Jacob's Chapel will be the centerpiece of activities Saturday that will include a national historic marker dedication, a Juneteenth celebration, and community fun day and health screenings. Visitors will also be able to tour the cemetery where James Still, the "black doctor of the Pines" famous for his herbal remedies, is buried, along with a half-dozen local African American soldiers who served in the Civil War.
"This is such a historic and important representation of the black history right here in Burlington County," said Crystal D. Charley, president of the Southern Burlington County branch of the NAACP, one of the event sponsors. "A lot of people don't know how much black history is back there at that site."
Person hopes the event will bring public awareness and kick-start the fund-raising. Future plans may include a gala, he said.
"We have a mission to get it up and running," Person said during a tour last week. "Every day, the building is deteriorating."
The meetinghouse was part of the early 19th-century free black community of Colemantown. The hamlet was named for John Coleman, who served as the "conductor" there on the Underground Railroad, and was one of the earliest black landowners at the site, The rural community included a stable, taverns, blacksmith, and general store. Escaped slaves seeking freedom were sheltered in the community and moved through Burlington County.
However, Person, a descendant of James Still as well as William Still, the "father" of the Underground Railroad, has discovered that some dates and names that have long been associated with Colemantown are wrong and he wants to correct the historical records.
For example, it is believed that the chapel took its name from Jacob Mitchell, a pastor at the church in the 1860s, and not Albert Jacob, a local Quaker who is thought to have deeded the land.
Residents, some of them freed slaves, worshiped at the Colemantown Meeting House. A portion of the building was constructed in the 1820s at what is now Brace and Church Roads. It was moved to the north side of Elbo Lane in 1840 and later to its current location on the south side.
The meetinghouse became a schoolhouse and Sunday school after Jacob's Chapel was dedicated in 1867.
Today, the schoolhouse and an attached wood-frame building, Jacob's Chapel, and the cemetery are all that remain of Colemantown. The last of the small frame dwellings where blacks lived was demolished in the 1990s.
The church and its congregation continue to play a role in social justice. Litigation that led to landmark decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court stemmed from a meeting at Jacob's Chapel and a declaration by then-Mayor Bill Haines denying a request for affordable housing.
A one-room little frame church with ornate stained-glass windows, Jacob's Chapel remains in use by the congregation and is believed to be the oldest A.M.E. congregation in Burlington County. Person has led the congregation for 23 years.
Behind the chapel, the 125 headstones in the small cemetery once known as the Colemantown Negro Cemetery provide history lessons. For every headstone, there are at last 25 unmarked graves, Person said.
Volunteers from a local Boy Scout troop recently took photographs of every headstone so that the church has a map of the cemetery, Person said. The church hopes a researcher will come forward to provide information on those buried there besides those who are well-known, he said. Besides Still, others include Cpl. George Robinson, who served in the Civil War.
The entire site, according to Preservation New Jersey, has significance "not only to African American history, but to telling an important chapter of New Jersey's story."