'Save the Howe House': Montclair rallies to prevent sale of 'Freed Slave House'

MONTCLAIR — About a hundred people attended a last-minute rally Sunday to call attention to the plight of Montclair's historic James Howe House, also known as the Freed Slave House, which was put up for sale by its owner last week.

The gathering was organized by a community coalition, Friends of the Howe House, that began at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair and includes leaders of African American groups in town.

Attendees held signs saying "Save the Howe House" and "Wake up Montclair," and about a dozen people spoke about the importance of preserving the house, believed to have stood at 364 Claremont Ave. since as early as the 1600s. The property is a key piece of African American history in the community, supporters said.

"We have lived here for decades and generations and centuries and we feel like outsiders now," said longtime resident Joanne Child Ash. "An ex-slave was given his freedom — as if you could give another person their freedom! To try to totally erase that is alarming to us as a people. It's heartbreaking."

The tiny clapboard structure was originally on a large tract of farmland owned by Revolutionary War hero and abolitionist Major Nathaniel Crane, a descendent of Montclair's founder. He purchased a young James Howe in 1831 for $50, according to historical records.

When Crane died in 1836, his will freed Howe, who was blind, and gave him $600, Crane's "five best acres," a mill property in Caldwell called Crane's Mill and a ferry business in the Meadowlands, according to Frank Godlewski, a local historian. He helped keep the house from being relocated to the Montclair History Center in 2008.

In the ‘50s the James Howe House was sold by Howe's descendants to the Van Dyk family, who run a nursing home on an adjacent property.

The house has local landmark status, but church members had reached out to owner Bob Van Dyk to tell him they were seeking to add state and federal historic designations. Van Dyk said that he wanted to sell the house, but agreed to allow more time to explore protections.

The real estate listing that appeared last Wednesday was an unwelcome surprise to the group, and it spurred them to form the nonprofit and request donations to purchase the property.

Donors can go the church group's website: onrealm.org/uumontclair/-/form/give/HoweHouse. Or they can text "UUCMHoweHouse" to 73256 or contact friendsofthehowehouse@gmail.com.

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"The fact that the owner gave this house and land to his slave and he was able to live on this property after a life of destitution as a slave is just something we really want to remember from a Montclair African American history standpoint," said William Scott of the Montclair NAACP. "It is a tremendous history. We will not allow this history to be demolished and rewritten."

The Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael of the Universalist congregation said the preservationists' goal is to "prevent the house from falling into the hands of a developer who will erase its history." The real estate listing set off alarms, she said, because it starts out with the words, “Attention Investors."

At the conclusion of the rally, former Township Council member Renee Baskerville led the group in a call-and-response chant inspired by the poet Maya Angelou.

"What time is it?" she asked. The crowd answered, "Liberation time!"

"Whose house?" she called. The response: "Howe House!"

Julia Martin is the 2021 recipient of the New Jersey Society for Professional Journalists' David Carr award for her coverage of Montclair for NorthJersey.com.

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Email: jmartin@gannettnj.com

Twitter: @TheWriteJulia

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Freed Slave House: Montclair NJ preservation rally held