New Jersey was the last Northern state to end slavery

Events took place around New Jersey this weekend for Juneteenth, commemorating June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas finally learned they were freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation 2 1/2 years earlier.

Now a national holiday, Juneteenth is also observed as a state holiday in 47 states including New Jersey. But Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed enslaved people in the mostly Southern “rebellious states”; it did not free those enslaved in the Northern states. And two years after Lincoln’s proclamation, New Jersey still “bitterly refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, the United States Constitutional Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude across the country,” points out Noelle Lorraine Williams, director  of the African American History program at the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Williams writes that “there were still enslaved Black men and women in New Jersey even after Juneteenth. Imagine, New Jersey’s death grip on slavery meant that until December 1865, six months after enslaved men, women, and children in Texas found out they were cheated of their freedom, approximately 16 African Americans were still technically enslaved in New Jersey.

“While there were many Black, mixed-race, and white people in New Jersey who fought against slavery, most legislators refused to condemn the institution. Profits from slaveholding organizations had built and maintained the state’s major cities and regional centers like Newark and those in Bergen County.”

The official end to slavery in New Jersey did not come until Jan. 23, 1866 when Gov. Marcus L. Ward, in his first official act in office, signed a constitutional amendment to end to slavery in the state. “In other words,” notes Williams, “the institution of slavery in New Jersey survived for months following the declaration of freedom in Texas.”

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