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Monday, October 3, 2022

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Hidden history brought to life as small African American N.J. museum set to expand


If it takes a village to raise a child, sometimes that’s also what it takes to bring hidden history to light.

That is certainly the case for the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM), founded in 2014 with a mission “to tell the story of the unique culture, experiences, and contributions of the African American community of the Sourland Mountain Region.”

The museum is currently contained within a church that sits on the historic True Farmstead, which was originally owned by a Black Union army veteran who worked as a farmer after the Civil War. His descendants Spencer and Corinda True eventually donated the land for the church in 1899.

At a celebration ceremony called “Preservation in Action” Somerset County Commissioner Director Shanel Robinson spoke this week from the front porch of a modest house on the farmstead, located 100 feet from the newly renovated Mt. Zion AME Church.

The museum is set to grow.

Robinson recognized the organizations in the village that will help raise this child. “I am thrilled to announce that Somerset County is pledging to contribute funds for the acquisition of this True Farmstead property where we stand today.

“Funding for this preservation project comes from Somerset County’s Dedicated Open Space, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund and partnership with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, The Sourland Conservancy and the Stoutsburg Southland African American Museum.”

The county announced its new preservation plan that will integrate open space, farmland and historic preservation, which includes preservation of the True Farmstead and the museum.

Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer acknowledged the contribution to the cause from the Green Acres grant from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 -Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer delivers remarks from the front porch of a house on the Historic True Farmstead at a celebration ceremony on the property called “Preservation in Action.” Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Jay Watson, who is senior director for Statewide Land Protection and Community Relations for New Jersey Conservation said, “This property is just incredible. It’s not our typical large-scale land acquisition.”

The property is only 5 acres and his organization has helped protect parcels as large as the 9,000-acre Franklin Parker Preserve in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

“But,” Watson continued, “the opportunity to preserve this African American history… is just an amazing opportunity for all of us and I want to thank you.”

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Donetta Bishop Johnson, executive director of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, delivers remarks at a celebration ceremony on the property called “Preservation in Action.” Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

“As we cross this threshold, we move closer to creating a larger museum complex and environmental conservancy center where SSAAM will do our part to heal our community, by offering a broader and truer story of American history,” the museum’s Executive Director Donetta Bishop Johnson said. “And thus offering us all a better future.”

The museum was born in 2014 out of decades of research conducted by founders Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, who would go on to author a book titled “If These Stones Could Talk.

Their research uncovered, among many others, the story of Friday Truehart, a slave purchased by Old School Baptist preacher the Rev. Oliver Hart. Friday was separated from his mother and brought to Hopewell from Charleston, South Carolina at the age of 13.

Last April, there was a Witness Stone placing event in front of Hart’s church in downtown Hopewell in the former slave’s memory. The Witness Stones Project was founded as a way to “restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals” through teacher workshops, and engagement with students and members of the local communities.

At each project’s culmination a witness stone is installed to memorialize an individual.

Truehart’s direct descendant and family matriarch Patricia True Payne —he was her 4th paternal grandfather— was in attendance that day and also Monday at the “Preservation in Action” event.

She grew up visiting her grandparents on the family farmstead.

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Patricia True Payne, center, is escorted by Donetta Bishop Johnson, right, Executive Director of The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, walking away from the house Payne spent time in as a child in vising her grandparents. The land is part of the historic True Farmstead property, which will be preserved in a collaborative effort.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Patricia True Payne, left, a direct descendant of a former slave, Friday Trueheart, speaks inside Mt. Zion AME Church which now serves as the home of The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. The museum’s executive director, Donetta Bishop Johnson, is seated at right.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Speaking inside the church after the ceremony she told them, “And in the living room, I remember very clearly,” she said, “We did not have running water…. We had our outhouse. We didn’t know that wasn’t the norm. And we had such a strong loving family it made our growing-up environment such a pleasure!”

It was only in the 1950s after getting a television did they become aware of what Payne called “some of the incredible rights activity going on in the South.” Payne, who had a 40-year career as an academic librarian in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts now serves as secretary for the SSAAM.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “having the ability as an adult to make a contribution to share memories and to restore a homestead that helps the rest of the greater community understand what life was like, it’s as much, an important experience for you as it is for my memories.”

While the property’s transformation is ongoing, it is not ready for visitors, however the church building, which is located at 189 Hollow Road in Skillman, will be open to the public during Somerset County’s 17th Annual Journey Through the Past on Oct. 8 from 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. and Oct. 9, from noon to 4 p.m.

Executive Director Donetta Bishop Johnson said a Visitor, Education & Exhibition Center will be built on the property and will have larger spaces for gatherings, presentations, and exhibitions.

“The Mt. Zion AME Church and the True Farmstead will be the authentically restored historical gems of the entire ‘museum campus.’

“We are confident that by developing programs that engage our diverse community around a more complete understanding of our history and our important land and ecology preservation opportunities, we will strengthen our community ties and create a more equitable understanding of our history.”

Scroll for more photos:

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Visitors listen to a speaker inside the Mt. Zion AME Church which houses The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Skillman.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Somerset County Commissioner Deputy Director Melanie Murano delivers remarks from the front porch of a house on the Historic True Farmstead at a celebration ceremony on the property called “Preservation in Action.” Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Sandra Rhue; Secretary; Somerset County Agriculture Development Board, listens to a speaker inside the Mt. Zion AME Church which houses The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Skillman.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Patricia True Payne, left, is escorted by Donetta Bishop Johnson, Executive Director of The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, into the recently renovated Mt. Zion AME Church which now serves as the home of the museum.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Elaine Buck, 2nd from left and Beverly Mills, right speak with visitors inside the recently renovated Mt. Zion AME Church in Skillman, home of the The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, which the two founded.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Beverly Mills, center, gestures while speaking inside the recently renovated Mt. Zion AME Church in Skillman, home of the The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, which she co-founded with Elaine Buck, 2nd from left. At right is museum secretary Patricia True Payne.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Somerset County Commissioner Deputy Director Melanie Murano delivers remarks from the front porch of a house on the Historic True Farmstead at a celebration ceremony on the property called “Preservation in Action.” Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 -Jay Watson, who is Senior Director for Statewide Land Protection and Community Relations for New Jersey Conservation, delivers remarks from the front porch of a house on the Historic True Farmstead at a celebration ceremony on the property called “Preservation in Action.” Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022- file photo of Mt. Zion AME Church, which houses the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, pictured as it was on Thursday, April 28, 2022 when renovations were still underway. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum

Monday, September 19, 2022 – Visitors gather outside the newly renovated Mt. Zion AME Church, which houses The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) in Skillman. In front, from left are John Buck, President of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, Jay Watson, Senior Director for Statewide Land Protection and Community Relations for New Jersey Conservation and Lauren Wasilauski, Open Space Director for Montgomery Township.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

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Michael Mancuso may be reached at mmancuso@njadvancemedia.com



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