UUs Help Protect Hidden Black History in New Jersey

UUs Help Protect Hidden Black History in New Jersey

A Montclair coalition rallied the community to save the town’s first Black-owned home.

Jeff Milchen
An African American woman in an all-black outfit holds a set of house keys. She is standing in front of a multiracial group of people in the front yard of a house.

Aminah Toler, Friends of the Howe House chair, holds the keys to the Howe House after closing, on February 13, 2023.

© 2023 Kate Albright


The real estate ad for the one-bedroom home in Montclair, New Jersey, made no mention of the property’s unique lineage. Just two words headlined the ad: “Attention Investors.” But some locals knew the home held an important story and voiced alarm that it could become yet another historic structure demolished to make way for a pricey new house.

In the 1830s, legal and financial barriers made Black homeownership rare, and the property known as the James Howe House is one of the few Black-owned homes of the era to survive. Built in the Revolutionary War era for the town’s founding Crane family, the house was occupied by James Howe in the early 1800s. Howe acquired the home when Major Nathaniel Crane, a Revolutionary War hero—and Howe’s enslaver—freed Howe and bequeathed him the house upon Crane’s death. Howe, who was mostly blind, became the first Black person to own a home in the town and lived there with his wife and two children for many years.

Black lives matter. Black history matters. The Howe House matters. 
—Friends website

Last year, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair decided to focus its justice work on reparations and, upon learning the Howe House lacked state or national landmark recognition, its social justice team began pursuing that status for the site. When the “Attention Investors” ad ran soon after, members knew they were destined to tackle a far more ambitious goal.

Recognizing the need for a coalition, they partnered with the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation, Montclair NAACP, and Montclair Mutual Aid. Together, these groups and unaffiliated volunteers catalyzed local organizing. They established Friends of the Howe House as a nonprofit organization to advance their common goal of protecting and restoring the property, and using it to advance African American history and heritage.

The all-volunteer group faced a harsh reality: they needed to raise $379,000 and every day might be their last chance. The ensuing frenzy of fundraising activity included countless individual donation requests, an art sale, a West African jazz concert, Montclair Brewery selling a “Howe House Ale” to benefit the cause, and many other efforts.

The group members were motivated by the destruction of other historic buildings and the rapid displacement of Black homeowners as real estate costs rose (Montclair’s Black population fell from 32 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2020). “Montclair’s history, and the many African Americans who helped shape and make this town, deserve the right to not have history erased,” said Aminah Toler, chair of Friends of the Howe House.

A multiracial group of people standing in the front yard of a house.

Friends of the Howe House celebrate after closing.

© 2023 Kate Albright

The group is passionate about turning Howe House into an educational facility, not just to share the history of the home but of Montclair’s Black community. In conversation, Toler told me of proud families who made Montclair what it is today and the Black merchants who developed a prosperous business district in the south end of town.

Local historian Frank Godlewski believes the Howe property and nearby Crane mansion served as part of a hidden route used by people who’d escaped enslavement and were fleeing bounty hunters.

But some of the region’s history is dismal. While New Jersey “outlawed” slavery in 1804, the law provided only for “gradual emancipation,” meaning many enslaved people never realized the promise of freedom until after the federal Emancipation Proclamation in 1865—if they lived to see it. Yet Toler says many New Jersey residents are unaware of the widespread enslavement and racist structures that stripped Black residents of wealth and dignity for generations after.

Laws and discriminatory deed covenants made it difficult for Black people to own and hold property, says Godlewski. Crucially, Nathaniel Crane’s will that freed James Howe and bequeathed him the house and five acres also specified the property would pass to Howe’s heirs. Crane’s thorough language protected against covenants and schemes that often deprived Black people of the ability to pass down or inherit property.

Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, minister of the Montclair UU congregation, says, “There are wounds left by slavery, and by the racist oppression that followed. Any opportunity that we [UUs] have to repair the harm is worth our attention and engagement.” She mentioned the congregation overwhelmingly endorsed the explicitly antiracist Eighth Principle in 2022, and many members see the UU role as living the principle through acts of reparation.

While the Friends of the Howe House messaging did not frame the cause as reparation, it conveyed urgency while offering a compelling vision to inspire donations toward buying the house: “Every day, all over the country, physical signs of African American history are being erased, repurposed, and reclaimed...lost to future generations,” read an overview on their website. “Imagine a place where African American history can be experienced, studied, honored, and safeguarded for posterity… This is your opportunity to help bring this vision to life.”

The Montclair community responded.

A house with a staired patio in front of some trees.
© 2023 Kate Albright

“It was more than I've ever seen happen in this amount of time on any justice initiative I’ve worked on,” said Toler. In just over two months, Friends of the Howe House had raised $50,000 and found two families willing to back bridge loans that enabled a cash bid. On November 18, the group presented the owner with an offer for the full asking price—only to be turned down. He’d accepted another offer the previous day and declined to meet with them.

Far from giving up, the Friends ramped up, generating a new wave of media coverage and community support for permanently protecting the house. That pressure, and a new bid $26,000 over the asking price, won over the owner, who’d purchased the house in the 1950s (the acreage was sold off earlier).

Upon receiving the keys on February 13, the Friends of the Howe House celebrated the success for the community. Kimberly Latortue, the group’s president, said, “There was no hero who saved the day. This was a community, a coalition of people, organizations, and companies coming together for a common cause, and we saved a piece of history.”

Learn more at FriendsoftheHoweHouse.org.

UUA Justice Communications Associate Jeff Milchen welcomes your comments or questions. Tweet @JMilchen.