Friday's Memory, October 12 2018
“The 1822 will of Enoch Drake, mentioned a bequest to his son William Drake of the farm “now occupied by Frost, a free colored man.”
Many of you who have been following our Friday Memories may recall the story about my 4th great grandfather, Frost Blackwell, who was a slave of Andrew Blackwell, a single White farmer from Hopewell Township who served in the Revolutionary War. Andrew, who was very wealthy, died in 1818 leaving $100 to Frost “his servant man” and his freedom–-an unfathomable sum of money for this time period bequeathed to a man of color!
Now fast forward to 2018. A couple weeks ago, while manning the table for the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum at the Hopewell Harvest Fair, I met a lovely couple who stopped to chat. During our conversation, the couple mentioned to me that this past December they moved to the house that had once belonged to Rep. Rush Holt. They went on to say that a free Black man had also occupied this house at one time and would I possibly know who he may have been? “He was my 4th great grandfather”, I excitedly answered and what I had hoped for happened; I was graciously invited to visit their home.
If I told you I was prepared for the wash of emotion I felt upon entering this lovely historic home I would not be telling the truth. As I walked up the driveway to the front door I stood outside and silently said, “I’m here Grandpop.” I was then greeted by the homeowners who, after a glass of wine, showed Elaine and me around the house. As the hosts shared information about their house, I felt a strong pull as we entered the oldest section of the house which, I was told, was where my ancestors (Frost and his wife, Nancy) had lived. I could not resist running my fingers along the brickwork of the fireplaces, the built in closets and cubby holes and examined the wide planked floors that had nails from that period still visible. But it wasn’t until I climbed the steep winding wooden steps to the third floor that I felt my ancestor’s presence most intently. It almost took my breath away as I thought about Frost and Nancy, the wife whose freedom he purchased nine years after he was freed, had inhabited the space where I was standing close to two hundred years later. I sensed Elaine watching me closely as I stood taking it all in.
Eventually I managed to tear myself away and follow our host back to the first floor to continue our visit when we were asked a question. “Do you know anything about a slave who was lynched near here,” our hostess inquired. According to a story she was told, a slave came to borrow a halter from the barn on the property and ended up being lynched with the same halter. Elaine and I looked at her in amazement because that same morning at a meeting we were asked if we knew how many people, if any, were lynched in New Jersey.
We knew immediately it had to be the story about Cuffee. In Hopewell Valley Heritage author Alice Blackwell Lewis described Cuffee as an “indolent” slave that did not like getting out of the bed in the morning and murdered his master (Daniel Hart) while being “bodily dragged” by him from his bed. She further set the scene by writing, “Cuffee though lazy, was a huge man with great strength, attacked Mr. Hart with a pocket knife all the while dragging him down the stairs.” Hearing about the attack, local neighbors set out to find Cuffee only to find he had hung himself with the halter he borrowed from the neighbor- the same house we were then sitting.
I then recalled a poem from an unknown source printed in “Pioneers of Old Hopewell,” by Ralph Ege regarding Cuffee and his master’s death. The end of the lengthy poem read:
“The neighbors then for him did look, and found him down by Honey Brook, hung with a rope upon a limb, no mortal eye did pity him. The next day they did prepare a fire to burn his body there. They chained it to the self same limb, and there they made an end of him. All Negroes who have life and breath, take warning of his wretched death. Don’t take an ax or use a knife to destroy your master’s life.”
Cuffee’s end, whether by lynching or suicide, should be regarded as a reminder of the ugly inhumane system of slavery that took place right here in the North. And although we will never know the real story of Cuffee’s demise, I can tell you one thing for sure--that for a period of time a former slave occupied the same house that one day a United States Congressman would call home.
“Now Occupied by Frost, a Free Colored Man”