On Claremont Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey, there’s a small, one-bedroom colonial home. A real estate listing originally started with “Attention investors,” and plays up its charm, describing it as a “beauty” with “gleaming hardwood floors, a great living room, a dining area, a tastefully updated kitchen.” The asking price is $379,000.
But community members say the home has value far beyond that — as a piece of history. The home was once owned by James Howe, a former slave. The property was bequeathed to him in the same will that set him free.
Historian Frank Godlewski, a roots researcher with the New Jersey chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, has been working with community members who hope to purchase the home, even as another offer threatens to close off that possibility for good. The community members are hoping to preserve the home — sometimes known as the Howe House, sometimes as the Freed Slave House — and aren’t clear on the intentions of the other would-be buyer, who hasn’t spoken to media.
Godlewski recently joined Tiffany Hanssen, weekend host for All Things Considered on WNYC, to discuss the home and its significance to our understanding of slavery. The transcript of their conversation below has been edited lightly for clarity.
Tiffany Hanssen: Before we talk about the sale of the Howe House, can you tell us just a little bit about James Howe, and how he came to own the house?
Frank Godlewski: James Howe was enslaved, and he worked for the Crane family [descendants of Montclair’s founders]. And in the 1831 will of Maj. Nathaniel Crane, the language of the will says that “I leave to James Howe, who I have manumitted [released from slavery], a 5-acre tract of property.” Also, he bequests a mill in Caldwell and a ferryboat property in the Meadowlands.
And it’s also sort of like a bulletproof will, because it’s to James Howe and his heirs — and it makes it impossible for anyone to take it away from them, which is very important because of all the laws against African American people owning property and deed covenants and whatever. So nobody could challenge that.
So tell me about Nathaniel Crane. He is important to Montclair history because …?
Well, Montclair used to be called Cranetown. The Cranes settled in Newark, which Robert Treat [founded]. And Robert Treat’s daughter married a Crane. So they were a very important family that immigrated from Connecticut and before that, Massachusetts in the 1600s.
Essentially, Nathaniel Crane was part of the founding family of Montclair?
It reminds you that we had a slavery past, and New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery.
I assume it was fairly rare for a Black person to own a home at that point in New Jersey. We’re talking the 1800s, right?
Yes, it’s 1831. There are precedents. There are properties in Newark that were owned by African American people who were not enslaved. But there were just so many deep covenants, and it was just so impossible, and shaky.
Black people could buy properties if they could, but they were super-charged — you know, way over market values. That went all the way into the 20th Century, with St. Albans in Queens.
There’s another Howe that bought a mansion — he bought it for a dollar, and then he sold if for a dollar, and it was co-signed by the Cranes and banks and whatever. So there were ways around all of these difficulties, if you were African American, but it certainly was very rare.
The asking price now is $379,000. I’ve seen a photo of it. It’s a lovely example of colonial architecture. So, let’s talk about the house itself. What else can you tell us about it and who owned it after Howe?
It stayed in the descendants’ family for quite some time. James Howe’s daughter, Mary, married an Oliver, and the Oliver family were quite prominent. They had a very important standing in Montclair with the First Presbyterian Church and with organizations, and with the founding of Black churches. So this was Theron Oliver. He was very important in town.
The story’s really interesting. The Olivers sold a corner of the property to the Welsh Wiggin family, who were a wealthy white family that had built a mansion. And Mrs. Blanton Welsh was just so interested in the history of the James Howe House, the Freed Slave House, that she had it restored. And then the Olivers sort of worked for them.
So that’s such an unusual story, where the Black landowner sells a piece of his property, a small piece of the property, to this family to build a mansion.
Is the mansion still standing on the property now?
Oh yes. Both the James Howe House, the Freed Slave House, and the Welsh Wiggin House have been designated as local landmarks.
And there’s a surrounding acreage to the property also?
Well, it was five acres. Now, something very curious and the subject of my study for years about the site is that there’s the opening of what was the test bore for an 1870s train tunnel. This train tunnel went from the James Howe property under the top of the mountain and then to the other side in Verona, where there’s the historic Annin Flag Factory.
And what’s emblematic about this tunnel is that it passed under the toll booth at the top of the main road, Bloomfield Avenue, the road that led into Montclair.
Now, why is this important? It’s because in the 1850s there was the Fugitive Slave Act, and there were militia groups like the Copperheads and others who were trying to prevent Black people from getting jobs in the newly formed industries, like in Paterson. But also there were very high bounties if these people were to capture fugitive enslaved people. So this tunnel was very strategic. You were able to pass under the toll booth, which was the hideout for the bounty hunters.
So my whole point in telling you this is that the James Howe House is part, in my opinion, of a very important freedom route, because you’d enter Montclair on the James Howe property, and then the Crane mansion, which was a few hundred feet below, had a pre-Revolutionary War tunnel that went underground for 1.4 miles and surfaced at the Davis Homestead, and that was on the Morris Canal.
There were even Black-owned transport services on the Morris Canal. These were African Americans who were free of enslavement, and they had transport businesses.
It has a tragic dimension that conserves the spirits, and [is] a reminder of America’s slavery past.
So it sounds like a home with vast historical significance. There is an offer on the house. We don’t know what the intent of this potential buyer is, if the sale goes through, but if the house can be preserved, how do you hope it will connect people in Montclair and the region to that past that you’ve been talking about?
Well, it’s a very important symbol. It’s a small house, so it could be used as a repository for African American history information. It’s not very big, as I said, but it could be visited, it could have a database. From the James Howe House, we just learned so much about history and diversity.
So it has potential as a learning tool.
Oh, absolutely. We’re gonna keep researching it, but we need it to be there. I’m grateful that it’s still there. It’s an important landmark of the African American quest for freedom. It has a tragic dimension that conserves the spirits, and [is] a reminder of America’s slavery past.
I mean, in today’s reality, you see the Freed Slave House and it reminds you that we had a slavery past, and New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery.