A small group of benefactors that includes “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star Andre Braugher will help purchase and preserve a North Jersey home once owned by freed slave James Howe.
For several months, a coalition of community groups rallied to save the small, one-bedroom colonial home on Claremont Avenue in Montclair — a site they say is an important reminder of not only that township’s history, but also the north’s ties to slavery. New Jersey had been the last northern state to abolish the practice, in 1804, and then only followed a process of gradual emancipation that kept many people enslaved for decades more.
A real estate listing originally started with “Attention investors,” and asked for a purchase price of $379,000. It played up the home’s charm, describing it as a “beauty” with “gleaming hardwood floors, a great living room, a dining area, a tastefully updated kitchen,” but made no mention of its connection to slavery — or the rare Black ownership of the property in the 1800s. And several weeks ago, Friends of the Howe House — which included members of the community’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation, African American Heritage Association, NAACP chapter and a grassroots mutual aid group — learned their offer on the home had been rejected in favor of another.
It wasn’t clear what the other buyer’s intentions were for the property, which currently has a tenant, and members of the coalition feared the home could be torn down. But Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation said this week the coalition submitted a winning bid for $405,000 and expects to complete the sale in January.
“We fundraised. We reached out to the press. We kept communicating our story to anyone that we thought could help,” she said. “And what came to pass is that we found a [few] incredible donors who were willing to be bridge builders for us.”
The “bridge builders” provided the Friends group with a loan that supplemented the $50,000 already collected through fundraising, so it could make a cash offer on the home. The group anticipates fundraising over the next few years to pay back that loan, and to develop historical resources at the property that will discuss the history of slavery in North America, and the impact of Black history in New Jersey overall and Montclair specifically.
In an interview, Sammler-Michael declined to name the benefactors, but noted that they’re highlighted on the Friends group’s website. They include Braugher, a North Jersey resident best known for his roles as Detective Frank Pembleton in “Homicide” and Capt. Raymond Holt in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and his wife, Ami Brabson, who co-starred with him in “Homicide” and has played several roles in the “Law & Order” franchise. They also include Montclair resident Milt Horowitz.
“We are the unlikely inheritors of the promise that James Howe was given,” Brabson wrote in a testimonial on the Friends site. “We are morally compelled to see that this promise lives on.”
In the 1800s, James Howe, who was blind, was an enslaved man working for the Crane family — descendants of Montclair’s founders. In 1831, the will of Maj. Nathaniel Crane freed him, and left him a 5-acre property in Montclair as well as a mill in nearby Caldwell and a ferryboat property in the Meadowlands. The will also made clear the property would belong to Howe’s heirs, which historian Frank Godlewski said served as an important shield against laws and deed covenants that made it exceedingly difficult for Black people to own and hold onto property.
“Black people could buy properties if they could, but they were supercharged — you know, way over market values,” Godlewski, roots researcher with the New Jersey chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, recently told WNYC “All Things Considered” weekend host Tiffany Hanssen in an on-air interview. “That went all the way into the 20th century, with St. Albans in Queens.”
Godlewski said he also believes the Howe property and Crane mansion served as part of a hidden route used by people who’d escaped slavery and were fleeing bounty hunters.
Portions of the bequest have changed hands over time, and in the 1950s Howe’s home itself — known locally as the “Freed Slave House” — was sold to the current owners, the Van Dyke family.
Sammler-Michael said the community members envision a digital archive and a museum-like experience at the Howe House. The current tenant’s lease continues until 2024 — “and when their time concludes in the house, we will begin the historical renovation,” she said.
Montclair is a town often celebrated (or derided) for progressive values — former Republican Gov. Chris Christie once called the town the “People’s Republic of Montclair,” and the nickname has become a badge of honor for community members proud of their liberalism.
“I think the other piece that I want to lift up is that Montclair is often lauded as an incredible representation of a town’s capacity to be diverse and generous in its inclusion and equity,” Sammler-Michael said. “The truth of the matter is that Montclair is bruised and burdened by a racist past just like any other town. And the James Howe House carries some of that history.”