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The Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project gives new color, context to historic NJ town

The Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project gives new color, context to historic NJ town
The Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project gives new color, context to historic NJ town 04:30

HADDONFIELD, N.J. (CBS) -- In order to celebrate Black history, you have to know it existed. That's part of the mission behind The Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project.

Nowadays, many know the town as a picturesque little borough with shops, restaurants, and a bustling downtown located about 10 miles from Center City, Philadelphia. With roots dating back to the 1600s, Haddonfield, New Jersey is recognized for its rich history, but some has been left out.

C. Adrienne Rhodes is the co-founder of The Preserving Black Haddonfield History Project. She said her family has lived in Haddonfield for six generations. 

"In many people's minds, the African American Community did not exist," Rhodes said.

The goal of the project is to educate and celebrate the African American community that once thrived in Haddonfield.

"In its heyday, the Black Haddonfield section was isolated but robust. There were businesses, there were professionals, there were educators," Rhodes said.

Part of the project includes a walking tour with 12 locations meaningful to the Black community including two churches, two locations that once served as segregated schools, a barber shop, market and baseball fields. 

Liz Crawford

"This is Mount Olivet Church here, which is one of the oldest African American churches in our town," Rhodes said. "There are only two."

Mount Olivet Church in Haddonfield CBS News Philadelphia

The whole community was centered around a very narrow intersection.

"The intersection of Ellis and Potter is called the Point. The entire neighborhood is often referred to as The Point," Rhodes said. 

The Point at the intersection of Ellis and Potter streets in Haddonfield, NJ.  CBS News Philadelphia

Eric Zino is director of the Haddonfield Public Library and is a partner on the project. He dug up an old picture of The Point from 1913 in a history book. The caption mentions the area's tough terrain for horses and automobiles but leaves out anything about the houses in the picture and the people who lived there.

"You're seeing the picture but you're not really given the full story," said Zino who is researching old archives and newspaper articles in search of any trace of Haddonfield's Black residents.

CBS News Philadelphia

"I'm getting a sense of what's missing and it's surprising and really disheartening at times the scope of what's missing, and it's extremely exciting when you start to discover those missing pieces and start to put the picture together," he said.

According to historians, by the start of the 20th century, about 10% of Haddonfield's population was Black. Today, the latest census data said it's about 1%.

Rhodes said flight from the neighborhood occurred for a variety of reasons including a decision to build a Little League baseball field in 1952. According to the pamphlet for the walking tour, "The demolition of the houses was purportedly done for the purpose of building new and improved housing for the displaced residents, but that never happened. For some, this remains a source of contention."

In addition to climbing property taxes, Rhodes said, "Some of it, to a large extent, was people feeling unwelcome. And so they moved to areas where they felt they could fit in."

Another aspect of the project is a collection of narratives from Haddonfield's African-American community. Volume I features 10 elders, who either still live in town or had family members who did.

Alfred J. Dansbury, Sr. is featured because his grandmother was the first and only African American school teacher in Haddonfield for decades. 

al dansbury
CBS News Philadelphia

Jacquelyn Johnson Mann Roberts has a place in the book too. Part of her story includes her mother who, according to Rhodes, is considered the "Rosa Parks of Haddonfield" because she refused to move her seat at the movie theatre when they were showing "Birth of a Nation."

The narratives were collected through interviews by students at Haddonfield Memorial High School who are part of the newly-formed Preserving Black Haddonfield History Club. 

"Hearing that such a club is being started in this type of a predominantly White community was just very encouraging," Arlene Young, a student working on the project, said. "It just really made me feel a little more comfortable. So, being in this club just I think helped me to feel more secure in my identity."

CBS News Philadelphia

It's a multi-generational project aimed at learning, growing and celebrating.

Project members hope to have permanent placards installed along the walking tour with the first one projected to go up later this year.

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