Hidden Figures walking tour shines light on African American experiences, accomplishments in Madison | Madison Eagle News

MADISON – Tucked away in a corner of Hillside Cemetery off Main Street are the graves of Morris and Elmira Quanto.

Their headstones are small with faded inscriptions, unremarkable against a chain-link fence at the edge of the property.

Not far away is the burial plot of the Gibbons family, featuring ornate column grave markers reaching up to about 20 feet high.

The Gibbonses were white, powerful and fantastically rich, a wealth sustained in part by the toil of the hundreds of people they enslaved on a Georgia plantation throughout the first half of the 19th century. They leave their mark with their distinctive graves and their former mansion, Mead Hall at Drew University.

But the Quantos lived here, too.

Morris Quanto, born into slavery in the early 19th century, lived his life in what is now Madison. He became a free man, founded a business and had a family who lived near the area we now know as Keep Street, according to local historian Mike Snyder.

His inclusion in Morris County birth records is the best evidence of an enslaved person living in this area at that time, according to Snyder, but that is only a reflection of the fact that the births of enslaved people in New Jersey were not required to be recorded until 1804.

“When we talk about the forgotten and overlooked histories of this area, this is what we’re talking about,” he said.

Snyder, who gives lectures on the history of slavery in Morris County, spoke of New Jersey’s sordid past as the last northern state to pass gradual emancipation and the last to ratify the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery nationally. Just within Hillside Cemetery, he noted, many of the most prominent names in the area’s history – Noe, Munn, Sayre, Brittin, Bonnel – were either slave owners or the descendants of slave owners.

Just as the history of enslaved and freed African Americans is not often considered in this area, neither is the history of abolitionists, Snyder said. Leading the tour group to another tombstone, he spoke of Baxter Sayre, the son of slave owners who was an active member of the abolitionist movement in Morris County.

Another white resident, Henry Keep, welcomed abolitionist meetings in his hat and umbrella factory near what is now the Madison Public Safety Complex on Kings Road, Snyder said.

While the Quantos’ history is relatively obscure, the life of another man born into slavery has a larger place in local lore as a Civil War hero.

Isaac Gordon, buried feet away from the Quantos at Hillside, spent his early life enslaved on a plantation in North Carolina. Escaping in 1862 at the age of 16 to warn the Union Army of an impending Confederate attack, he joined the army and came to Madison with Union General Robert Brown Potter after the war.

He served as a coachman and servant for the general until his death in 1917. Hidden Figures of Madison Co-Founder Kenisha Tucker puts flowers and American flags at his grave around Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Snyder spoke of the “pushing out and pushing back” of African Americans as new immigrant groups arrived in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“These people were here, they had families, they worked at local businesses,” said Snyder. “The Irish, the Germans, the Italians come in and pushed them farther back into places like The Hollow in Morristown, the least livable areas, the most flood-prone. We’re talking about people who once lived here and today they’re forgotten.”

The Hillside Cemetery tour was just the first leg of the Hidden Figures event.

Professor Jonathan Golden, director of the Drew University Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict, led the tour group to four more stops across town.

He led a presentation across the street from Hillside Cemetery at Madison Junior School, where in 1948 Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson came to speak at what was then the high school.

Golden spoke at length about one of Madison’s most famous residents: fellow Dodgers great Don Newcombe.

Born in 1926 on Locust Street, “Newk” would go on to become the first African American to pitch in the World Series, and the first to pitch in the All-Star Game. He won the National League MVP and Cy Young Award in the same year in 1956.

Golden recounted Newcombe’s successes, as well as incidents of prejudice he faced in the big leagues.

While white teammates stayed in a high-end hotel in St. Louis, the ace pitcher and fellow barrier-breaking Dodgers legends Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella would be made to stay in a “Blacks-only” hotel without air-conditioning. The three weren’t allowed to ride on the same bus as their teammates while visiting the city; they had to hail a cab.

Newcombe and Robinson later developed a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., Snyder said. The three had dinner at Newcombe’s Los Angeles home about a month before King’s assassination in 1968.

“King famously told them, ‘What you guys did on the baseball field made my job infinitely easier,'” Golden said. “’You won over American sports by playing really great baseball, the national pastime, and being great goodwill ambassadors for America. That made my job as a civil rights leader that much easier.'”

Golden also noted that a few years before Newcombe joined Robinson on the Dodgers, Robinson visited Madison in 1948 to speak at Madison High School, now the junior school building on Main Street.

Locust Street, Local Churches

A certain highlight of the tour was a living history of Locust Street provided by one of its longtime residents, Bobby Burrell.

Burrell’s great-grandparents were the first of his mother’s side of the family, the Johnsons, to move to Madison in the 1890s. The Johnsons had 10 children, starting a family that would form deep community ties from their homes on and around Locust Street.

Burrell offered a different kind of history lesson.

As the group of about 18 tour-goers followed him down the middle of the residential street, he pointed to one house then another, telling which relatives lived where and what comedies or tragedies befell them. When asked how many members of his family once lived on Locust, he began rattling off a dizzying list of names,

“It was like Walton’s Mountain with my family,” he said. “You couldn’t get away with anything.”

One of the homes was purchased in 1911 for $200, Burrell said. It took two days for his great-grandfather to transport the house from Main Street to Locust by horse.

He shared stories of an inheritance dispute, a 1915 barn fire, what houses certain family members lived in and which rooms they died in.

He shared a history of a trans woman living on the street in the early 1900s, a hidden figure in her own right.

Burrell, who lives with his partner in the original family homestead that was left to him by a great-aunt, is one of just two members of the Johnson clan left in town, he said. His home is located across the street from where Newcombe was born in 1926, about 30 years before his own birth.

Burrell remembered fondly his childhood in town, and said he still sees many of his old school classmates.

Speaking at the end of the tour after stops at the Bethel AME Church on Central Avenue and the First Baptist Church of Madison on Cook Avenue, he thanked Hidden Figures for hosting the event and the tour-goers for attending.

“Thank you for coming along and hearing about our history,” he said. “A lot of people came through here and they’re all gone, but a lot of their family members are still here and I’m proud to be one of them.

“Thank you folks very much for bringing this out in the open, so we can all be seen and noticed.”

The event concluded with a 30-minute stop at the AME church, followed by a visit to the Baptist church, where a fish fry fundraiser was underway. Both historically Black congregations came together in the 19th century to found their houses of worship.

The Rev. Vanessa Perry of Bethel AME spoke of her church’s 1846 founding by former enslaved people and indentured servants. The church moved twice before settling on Central Avenue in 1885, where it has served worshipers ever since.

Perry added she was excited to participate in the Hidden Figures event this year after learning much about the town during the inaugural event in 2021.

Event attendees learned a bit about the Baptist church at the final stop, though that part of the tour was unguided and tour-goers stopped to rest and enjoy fish and chicken sandwiches.

Golden thanked all for attending.

“It’s exciting to be able to remember some of the really interesting history of this area and the important stories that get forgotten,” he said. “Let’s get these hidden figures out in the open.”


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