Slavery in New Jersey never ended, it simply evolved into structural racism through legislation and policies that aimed to disenfranchise Black people in nearly every aspect of their lives. 

Mass Incarceration

Slavery (early 1600s-1865)

  • NJ’s complicated history with slavery began in the 1600s and was well established by the 1680s.

1804 Gradual Abolition Act

  • This was the first legislation to move towards abolition in NJ but even it appeased slaveholders by granting freedom only to those born after 1804, and only after they were enslaved for a certain amount of time- for women this was 21 years and for men it was 25 years.
  • NJ was both the last northern state to pass a gradual abolition act, and to abolish slavery. The state legislature rejected the 13th Amendment and refused to ratify it until January 1866, nearly a month after southern states such as Georgia and Alabama.

“Apprenticeship for Life” (1846-1865)

  • 1846 legislation finally outlawed slavery and declared any Black children born after its passing to be free. This did not free those who were enslaved and born before 1804, instead they became “apprentices” for life
  • These apprenticeships allowed categorical slavery to persist nearly a decade after the state claimed to have begun abolition

Convict Leasing (1800s-1930s)

  • Legally allowed through the 13th Amendment, convict leasing permitted individuals, firms, farms or plantations to “lease” convicts from prison to work for them, with the caveat that they were responsible for feeding, clothing and housing.
  • This not only mimicked the pre-abolition slave purchasing process, but additionally allowed for Black people to be held in slave-like conditions while NJ and the US claimed to have abolished chattel slavery.

Correctional Industries (1918-Present)

  • Developed directly from convict leasing, the NJ State Correctional Industries were established in 1918.
  • Correctional Industries is any use of NJ prisoners in a productive capacity, and the Department of Correction justifies this use of prisoners in saying that it “reduces prison disorder and prepared inmates for a successful life after release from prison.”

Youth Incarceration (1867-Present)

  • NJ opened its largest juvenile detention center in 1867, and since has invested millions of dollars into incarcerating children for miniscule offenses.
  • Today, NJ has the largest Black-white youth incarceration disparity in the nation.
  • Black youth are disproportionately incarcerated in juvenile detention centers that do not meet their intended goals of being safely rehabilitated in their communities.

Wealth Inequality

Slavery (early 1600s-1865)

  • Slaves were not allowed to own any property.
  • This was the start of a nearly 300-year disadvantage in a system where property has become a symbol of freedom and mobility, of which Black people have continuously been systemically denied.

Cottager System (1800s-1930s)

  • Due to embedded post-abolition racism, freed Black people weren’t able to get and sustain jobs in most industries. Many ended up in the cottager system, which subjected them to many of the same horrors of plantation and farm labor under chattel slavery, just with the benefit of a wage (but never a substantial one) and land to grow their own crops.

Great Migration (1916-1970)

  • As freed Black people from the South to NJ, the Great Migration laid the foundation for Black “ghettos,” since migrants were only allowed to move into certain areas due to redlining and restrictive covenants.

Great Depression (1929-1939)

  • During the Great Depression, Black people in NJ suffered more than any other group in the state. Black unemployment was nearly double that of white and by 1932, 26% of the families on state relief were Black, even though they were only 5% of the population.

Restrictive Covenants (1920-1948)

  • The prohibited Black people from occupying, purchasing, or leasing property throughout the nation and state, and meant that Black people were pushed into undesirable areas, leading to increases in poverty and health issues among Black residents.

Redlining (1935-Present)

  • The Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) produced maps of metropolitan areas that outlined Black communities in red to signal that these were risky areas for lending institutions to issue federally insured mortgages.
  • To date, despite the end of the HOLC, urban centers, which are often predominantly Black areas, throughout the state of NJ are denied access to fair borrowing loans.

Predatory Lending (1955-Present)

  • Predatory lending is when banks offer prospective home buyers subprime loans that have higher interest rates – leading to homeowners, which are often Black people, to default on these loans and have their homes foreclosed.
  • The impact is wealth stripping in Black communities; once homes are foreclosed upon, there is rarely a return to homeownership.
  • Black communities have devastating homeownership rates throughout the state as a direct result of this practice.

Educational Inequity

Slavery (early 1600s-1865)

  • Enslaved people were not allowed to receive an education, read or write in NJ.

Formal School Segregation (1800s-1947)

  • When Black people were allowed to attend schools in substantial numbers following the end of chattel slavery, schools were segregated and funding for them fell to communities and families in the form of education fees and tuition.
  • In 1871, Educational Fees were forbidden, making NJ the last state to give free public education – even later than the reconstructed southern states.
  • In 1881 NJ made a progressive move and enacted a statute that prohibited segregation in schools based on race, but this legislation was neither monitored nor enforced since schools in south NJ continued to be formally segregated until the 1950s.
  • In 1947 NJ adopted a new constitution which prohibited formal segregation in public schools. NJ is the only state with such a provision.
  • Some schools remained segregated after this until lawmakers threatened to withhold funds from schools that refused to integrate.

Bordentown School to Hayes Prison (1886-Present)

  • The Bordentown School opened in 1886 as a school for Black students during NJ’s segregation era; it was known for preparing Black students with an elite education that would lead them to career paths such as law, medicine, education and skilled trades.
  • As a result of the 1947 Constitution, the Bordentown School was forced to integrate white students. In 1955 the school was closed, with the state arguing that it perpetuated racial segregation.
  • After it was closed, it became NJ’s only girl’s youth detention center – Hayes Juvenile Female Secure Care and Intake Facility.
  • It is still open today, despite efforts from activists and a proclamation by former Governor Chris Christie to close it in 2018.
  • The Bordentown School which was once a prestigious school for Black students became the embodiment of the school-to-prison pipeline

De-facto School Segregation (1947-Present)

  • Despite nearly 75 years passing since segregation was formally prohibited, many schools throughout the state are still segregated.
  • Civil rights groups and students are currently suing the state saying that NJ’s schools are still deeply segregated, with nearly half of the state’s 585,000 Black and Latino students attending schools that are more than 90 percent non-white

Systemic Underfunding of Predominantly Black and Brown Schools (1947-Present)

  • Inequitable education for Black and brown students throughout the state persists through systemic underfunding; in 2020, predominantly nonwhite schools in NJ received 18% less funding than predominantly white schools.

Democratic Injustice

Slavery (early 1600s-1865)

  • NJ allowed anyone who owned a certain amount of property to vote, but since slaves were never allowed to own property, there were no Black voters 1776 Constitution
  • While this technically allowed free Black men and women to vote, there were other restrictions in place, such as property requirements and literacy tests, which meant voting rights for Black people were nonexistent.

Voting Restricted to White Men (1807-1870) 

  • In 1807, NJ became the first Northern state to legally restrict voting to only white men, a complete about-face on previous policies that allowed women and free Black people to vote.

1844 Constitution  

  • Constitutionalized the restriction of voting to only property-owning white men.

1981 NJ Gubernational Election 

  • During this election, the NJ Republican party dispatched “flying squads” to challenge fraudulent voting in Black communities.
  •  Black voters across the state were intimidated with weapons and illegal signs.

Racialized Disenfranchisement (1870-Present)

  • There continue to be systematic attempts to ensure that Black votes are not cast or counted
  • The restriction of voting rights for those with criminal convictions disproportionately affect Black people, since they are also disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.
  • Across the country, discriminatory voter suppression bills have been introduced following the 2020 elections, including requiring ID and purging voter registrations for those who have not voted in recent elections.