Black History Month: A Burlington County View

Every year since 1976, we have officially celebrated Black History Month, which remains a fitting celebration that extols the sacrifice, effort and accomplishments of African Americans in the United States.

I should note that while other groups have made significant contributions, only African Americans had to overcome slavery and the institutional racism and prejudice that followed it.

Generally, this month, we advocate learning more about those who passed before us and improved everyone's lives.

However, this year I'd like to offer a slight divergence and suggest celebrating Black History Month with a different twist. Stay home. By home, I'm referring to the plethora of venues in Burlington County – our home – with its historical sites that played a role in African American history. Some of these sites do not offer tours because they are private residences, but you can grasp a sense of history, location and importance. 

One example is Bethlehem African Methodist Episcopal Church, 213 Pearl Boulevard, Burlington City. It is the oldest black institution in the county and one of the oldest Black churches in the state. The small cemetery behind the church contains a few of the graves of our valiant African American soldiers from the Civil War, of whom 212,000 made the supreme sacrifice.

Burlington Friends Meeting House, 341 High St., Burlington City, also stands tall in Burlington County Black history. In 1688, this is where the first anti-slavery tract written in North America was read at this Friends meeting house. It was here Peter Hill is buried. He was one of the few Black clockmakers in the 18th century.

Also, there’s the Underground Railroad Museum located in Historic Smithville Park. This museum offers a visual presentation and exhibits of the Underground Railroad with an emphasis on New Jersey and particularly, Burlington County. 

The appealing part of the Burlington County Black History legacy is that a walking tour or a modest drive in Burlington County connects all these sites. In short, it's a pleasant afternoon. 


Indeed, while you're discovering these important historical sites, it might be valuable to broaden your tour for a moment and go beyond Burlington County with a discovery mindset. Coincidentally, National Inventor's Day falls on Feb. 11. It is another celebratory day on which we can draw attention to inventors who benefited not just the African American community but the world at large.

Here are a few examples of these inventors who overcame monumental obstacles: 

Garret Morgan. If you decide to drive in Burlington County or anywhere in the United States, think of Black History Month. That's because Garret Morgan, an African American, patented the first traffic signal, giving us the yellow light (caution) and probably saving numerous lives. We also credit him with inventing one of the first gas masks, known as the "breathing device." 

Alexander Miles. He saved lives by patenting a belt to the cage that closed the door on early elevators. (The door was kept open, and he was concerned about his daughter's safety.)

George Washington Carver. Even among the best, Carver was brilliant. As an agricultural chemist, he created 518 new products from sweet potatoes and peanuts, seeking to find other revenue in the wake of the dwindling cotton market.

For more examples of African American inventors, visit:  

Let's not forget during this February, there is no better time than now to honor Black leaders and inventors, who accomplished so much during a period when racism and social attitudes forced them to overcome spirit-sapping conditions.

Their contribution deserves a moment of reflection and a silent prayer of thanks.

That's my take, what's yours?