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Understanding New Jersey's Gradual Abolition Act

By: Tessa Payer, Museum Specialist at the Wayne Museum and Staff Member of the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs

On February 15th, 1804- almost 175 years after enslaved African individuals were first brought to New Jersey, the state legislature passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” New Jersey was the last Northern state to start the emancipation process, and even then, slavery would not legally end in the state until January 23rd 1866, when the Thirteenth Amendment was formally ratified.

Figure 1- An act for the gradual abolition of slavery…Passed at Trenton Feb. 15, 1804. Burlington: S.C. Ustick, 1804. From the Library of Congress,

In the decade before the Gradual Abolition Act was passed, there were about 11,400 African Americans enslaved in New Jersey. About 2,300 of these individuals lived and labored in Bergen County, which, according to author Christopher Matthews, would “consistently [have] the highest percentage of its population who were enslaved among all New Jersey counties.” Wayne Township was one of many towns included in this statistic, since it was considered part of Saddle River Township in Bergen County before its 1847 establishment.

What was the impact of the Gradual Abolition Act on those enslaved in Wayne Township? Though we don’t have a record of their personal thoughts or feelings, by reviewing the various parts of the 1804 Act, we’ll explore the experiences of the enslaved individuals who lived in the township.

“Be it enacted by the Council and General Assembly of this State, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That every child born of a slave within this state, after the forth day of July next, shall be free; but shall remain the servant of the owner of his or her mother, and the executors, administrators or assigns of such owner, in the same manner as if such child had been bound to service by the trustees or overseers of the poor, and shall continue in such service, if a male, until the age of twenty-five years, and if a female until the age of twenty-one years.”

Tom was born in New Jersey in 1811. His mother was an enslaved African American woman. According to surviving documentation, as well as the Act itself, he was “free born”. In reality, his legal status was in limbo. According to the first part of the Gradu