Historic Discovery Information

“Laying to Rest the Ancestors”

An Initiative of the “Acknowledging Enslavement and Liberation of African Americans in Historic Pequannock Project”

Have you heard of the word “Sankofa”?

The word comes from the Akan people of Ghana.  The Akan term is translated to mean, “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” “Sankofa teaches us the importance of learning from the past to build the future.”[1]  One of the Adinkra symbols for Sankofa portrays a bird flying forward with its head turned backward.

The past is a tricky thing.  It holds both stories of joy and triumph and stories of difficulty we might be tempted to forget and bury.  But the past is always a part of us whether we name it or not, and the wisdom of Sankofa tells us that we must look back to and honor the truth of the past to move forward with true growth and progress in the future.

FRC has recently been tied to a historic find that calls us to embrace the practice of Sankofa.  In the last year, remains of enslaved people from the Pequannock area have been found and our church is involved in bringing these “bones of the ancestors” to rest in an honoring way in our church cemetery.

To explain the story fully, here’s a little of our church’s history:

 “The First Reformed Church of Pompton Plains in Pequannock was built before there was a United States of America or a State of New Jersey. In 1706…the Dutch living in Pequannock Township began meeting together in homes for simple worship services and the first baptism was recorded … In 1769 the congregation built a new Sanctuary on its present …. Although slavery was still legal in NJ until 1804 and some held slaves as late as 1865, the church decided early to open its services to all races of people who it would receive as baptized members in “full communion,” which was progressive at the time.”[2]  In addition, FRC marriage records in the 1800s include not only African American marriages but also interracial marriages.

Our history gives us signs that the First Reformed Church of Pompton Plains was a progressive church in America’s dark history of enslaving people.  But the FRC was not perfect.  Historical records also document early church members participating in the enslavement of human beings.

Now, to tell you more about this historical find. In November of 2023, Pastor Stacey and Pastor Dave were approached by historians from Rutgers University and New Brunswick Theological Seminary.  These historians shared a historical discovery which is detailed in their own words below: 

“During a review of the collections at the Rutgers Geology Museum in 2022, researchers determined that Rutgers University-New Brunswick was in possession of human remains from multiple cultural and geographical contexts. Among these remains were those of four individuals whose burials were disinterred during sand mining in Pequannock Township in January 1936, and whose remains were brought to the museum shortly thereafter. At the time of disinterment, local residents were consulted about the likely provenance of the remains, which university researchers have been able to substantially corroborate through archival research in deeds, wills, census, birth, death, and marriage records, newspaper articles, and other records that establish evidence for the ownership of land where the remains were found. The exact identities of the individuals represented in the remains disinterred in Pequannock cannot be ascertained without destructive analysis; however, pathological and osteological analysis suggests that the remains had been buried for approximately 80-100 years at the time of disinterment. They are believed to be African American, and a living witness at the time indicated they were likely to have been people who were enslaved by the DeMott family. The burials were made on land that was owned by the DeMott family for the majority of the nineteenth century, and the witness reported that several burials of “Negro slaves” were made in the early 1850s at that site. At this location, the DeMotts enslaved dozens of people, many of whom lived and worked at this site, including individuals named York, Dinah, Andrew, Isaac, Amzi, Frank, Jude, Phebe, Manus, Harry, Jack, Charles, Bill, and Mercy.”[3]

Based on the evidence uncovered by these historians, we cannot determine the exact identities of the individuals represented in the remains from Pequannock. But because the remains were discovered in an area of land owned by the DeMott family in a place where eyewitnesses gave testimony that enslaved people were buried, we believe these “bones of the ancestors” could be any of the individuals enslaved by the DeMott family.  How are these ancestors tied to FRC? The DeMott family were members of FRC.  Furthermore, historical records show us that the people enslaved by the DeMott family are tied to the First Reformed Church as well. York and Dinah’s son Andrew was married as a free man at the First Reformed Pompton Plains.

With the goal of finding the truth of these ancestors and laying them to rest in an honoring way, the historians created a council of local historians and clergy (including Pastor Stacey and Dave).  The advisory council would eventually name their project: “The Acknowledging the History of Enslavement and Liberation of African Americans in Historic Pequannock Project” with the mission statement of “Acknowledging the Past, Reconciliation in the Present, Charting a Course for the Future”.

The recommendations of this advisory committee and the names of the participants can be found by clicking here.

The council first met on February 23, 2024 and immediately identified their first goals as finding a way to tell the stories of these ancestors and to lay them to rest in an honoring way.  The council suggested the location of the Cemetery of the First Reformed Church of Pompton Plains as a burial place.  Pastor Stacey and Pastor Dave, in consultation with Consistory, immediately welcomed this proposal and are currently working with both the Cemetery Commission and the Council to move forward with a plan to bring to rest the remains of these ancestors in the church cemetery. More information will be given to the congregation as plans and a date for a service are made.  In its work, the council named the common injustice done to enslaved people by burying them in unmarked graves or outside of cemeteries.  The council plans to not only mark the final resting place for these ancestors who were found, but will also include a marker honoring those unknown others who were buried in unmarked graves.

Finally, the council has stated that they desire their work to continue beyond a “laying to rest the bones of the ancestors”.  The council is actively looking for ways to share the stories of all those enslaved with this community and provide helpful tools to the community with how to process stories like these and more forward in growth and healing today.

Since first hearing about this historical discovery in December of 2023, the FRC Consistory has been holding this process of truth telling and laying to rest the ancestors in deep prayer.  Consistory has discussed and prayed about opportunities our church can create for sharing the stories of these ancestors and engaging in discipleship around racial justice and anti-racism. Sankofa is not the only teaching that tells us to look back to truly find healing and growth in the future.  Jesus also calls the church to “tell the truth in love”, to seek repentance and forgiveness, and to be justice-makers in the world. This work of looking back to move forward with growth and healing the future is essential to us being a church of “Open Hands, Open Hearts, and Open Doors.” Please join us in praying for this process of “laying the ancestors bones to rest” and for opportunities for upcoming conversation and discipleship.  If you have questions or need to talk with someone about this important news, please reach out to Pastor Stacey or Pastor Dave.

[1]“Sankofa: Learning from the Past to Build the Future,” Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity African American Cultural Center, NC State University, April 3, 2024, https://diversity.ncsu.edu/aacc/sankofa-learning-from-the-past-to-build-the-future/#:~:text=The%20translation%20of%20this%20African,past%20to%20build%20the%20future

[2] “Our History”, First Reformed Church of Pompton Plains, April 3, 2024, https://firstreformedchurch.com/about-us/our-history/

[3] The Acknowledging the History of Enslavement and Liberation of African Americans in Pequannock Project, Council Description and Recommendations