The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick
Reverend Karen G. Johnston
Little people living love out loud.
That’s what Kid President told us is ours to do.
That’s what the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is trying to do.
Given that it is the eve of election day, given that one of Unitarian Universalism’s core principles is to actively engage in democratic processes, it seems befitting that we explore how change is brought about.
I am a big fan of voting, even when the choices are not what I would choose, knowing that people have lost their lives striving to gain and protect the right ot vote. I hope that any and all of you who are eligible to vote will do so on Tuesday – especially given the credible reports of active and intentional voter disenfranchisement happening across the nation, targeted at communities of color – Black voters in Georgia, Brown voters in Texas, indigenous voters throughout North Dakota. I would love to hear of any of your efforts to support others in their voting, wherever they live.
This morning’s sermon is an exploration into other ways in which we, little people living love out loud, might affect change. I’m going to do it by looking at how change came about right here, in this locale, 200 years ago, nearly exactly, because it is related to one of the ways that we, as a congregation, are trying to affect change today.
So I share with you a quote from Rebecca Solnit – one of my favorite sources on hope — on the nature of change. We’ll revisit it a bit later in the sermon. She wrote,
Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. (Hope in the Dark)
Two hundred years ago, in 1818, someone spoke up for the vulnerable. They spoke up because they had a connection to someone in a position of strength who used their voice. They used their voice in a public setting. It informed and inspired others who were outraged at the injustice at hand. They met together. The discussed and decided on a plan. And not just in one place, but in three counties altogether. They used the system – they petitioned the NJ Assembly, probably – because that was how it was done in those days, just as it is done today – they sought out their Assemblyperson (well, in those days, their AssemblyMAN) who petitioned the Assembly. Unlike today, justice was swift. On October 31, 1818, “An Act to Prohibit the Exportation of Slaves or Servants of Color out of New Jersey” was introduced. Four days later, 200 years ago yesterday, the bill was taken up, amended, and voted on. It passed unanimously. Two days later, New Jersey petitions the U.S. Congress to end the illegal interstate slave trade.
During the decades running up to the civil war, there was a period in our national history that some have come to call the “Second Middle Passage.” The Middle Passage – the “first” one – is that era and process when Africans were stolen away from West Africa and forcibly brought to this continent (and parts of Europe) as slaves. It is a believed that at least two million Africans lost their lives as part of the Middle Passage (and that does not count the twice that amount who died between being stolen from their homes and brought to the coastal ports where they were loaded onto ships.)
During this Second Middle Passage, approximately 835,000 enslaved African Americans – that’s far too close to a million — were moved to the Deep South, both overland and by boat. Moved there from the more northern parts of slave-holding states and some, as we know from the movie, Twelve Years a Slave, and as we know from our local history, from the North, where slavery had been abolished outright, or gradually (as was true here in New Jersey). It is documented that enslaved peoples most feared being moved to Louisiana, fearing it to be a “death sentence” given the harsh conditions there. That destination, along with Mississippi, is where the Lost Souls ended up.
It is during this period that the infamous slave ring, located here in East Brunswick, overseen by a sitting Middlesex County judge, operated. It is during eight months – February to October — that four boatloads with at least 144 people were sent from this region, South, to line the greedy pockets of a few white men, empowered by their formal and informal roles in society.
Here’s the thing that I want you to take away from this: yes, this travesty is a part of our history, as is the whole white supremacy in the form of slavery, that got transmuted into Jim Crow into mass incarceration via the 13th Amendment. I don’t want you to forget that.
But what I want you to take away is that alongside that part of our nation is the outcry against injustice and in this case, that brought the injustice of the Van Wickle Slave Ring to an end. People, once informed, gathered together and worked to end it.
Would that happen today? Does it happen today? When we hear of outrageous miscarriages of justice, do we act to bring them to an end? Or is our response becoming ever-growing numbed to the relentlessly increasing tally of injustices?
When word of this infamous slave ring in the home of Judge Jacob Van Wickle got out – through an editorial in a Philadelphia newspaper written by the son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin – people (men, actually, given the era) in New Jersey gathered together. The Middlesex County Association for the Prevention of Kidnapping met in 1818 – first on July 28 in Rahway, then in New Brunswick on August 10.
Here is a text from a contemporary newspaper:
We are much gratified to find by the following articles from the New Brunswick Times of yesterday that the abominable business of kidnapping has been taken up in earnest in New Jersey, and that an Association is forming for the purpose of preventing that infamous and diabolical practice. As that state appears, for some cause or other, to have become the central point of operations for the ruffians who are engaging in stealing men, women, and children such an Association has become most urgently necessary. We hope the gentlemen concerned in it will make thorough work in bringing the kidnappers to speedy and condign punishment; and if the laws of the state are not sufficiently energetic to put an end to it, we trust they will use their influence to obtain from their legislature such as shall be effectual.
The efforts “to advise and adopt measures to prevent the illegal traffic in People of color” was lauded. Yet critiqued was the “thinly-attended” nature of the meeting, “a cause of sorrow, not only on account of the wretched victims of this traffic, but as it bespeaks an apathy in the community at large on a subject which ought to excite the feelings and call forth the exertions of all benevolent men [sic].”
I feel that. Can you feel that? Not enough people showing up. The lion’s share of the work falling on few shoulders. It’s demoralizing. It’s exhausting.
Yet, as the crab of change, scuttling this way and that tells us, it need not be an indication that change won’t happen, that relief and healing won’t be on its way, that the moral arc of the universe won’t allow us to bend it towards justice. There is a second half of that quote I shared from Rebecca Solnit — the one about change being a scuttling crab? – and it goes like this:
All that these [changes] have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
I have to say, as I hear these words aloud, that they sound like what must be going on in the hearts and minds of those people who left Honduras, are going through Mexico, and are going to ask for asylum at the U.S. border: betting on a future, uncertainty, another world might be possible.
“Hope just means another world might be possible…” like a world in which a free African American might not have to live in fear of being stolen into permanent slavery in the Deep South. Like Black and Brown people need not live in fear of being killed by men with guns standing their ground, with law enforcement using disproportionate force, with white women reporting them for going about their day-to-day. Our Jewish kindred and siblings don’t have to live in fear of losing their lives if they attend Shabbat services. Oh, the sorrowful list is too long for the spoken tongue, but it weighs heavy in our hearts.
Change happens, but we don’t always know how it will come about. This does not give us permission to let it fall to others, for change is only possible, not guaranteed. It does mean that while we act to bring about justice, we must be open to our efforts having impacts that we cannot foresee, as well as the efforts of others impacting us in ways that we cannot always understand.
Such was the case in 1818. Newspapers wrote about the horrible slave ring and people read about it and weighed in. Those few folks organized and in the end, petitions from Middlesex, Essex, and Somerset Counties went to the state legislature.
From that, exactly 200 years ago yesterday, because of small groups of outraged people who gathered together publicly (instead of just complaining aloud into their social media feed), stopped an abomination of a corrupt judge from stealing the freedom of other humans.
Little people living love out loud.
This history is now remembered because of a small, stalwart community group that is based out of this congregation, but is larger than just this congregation, refuse to let this historical tragedy be erased, which really means, to let it fester with all the other wounds of white supremacy in our nation, the ones that are surfacing now and have been all along. A small community group that welcomes your support and your participation to ensure that this piece of history gets some of the healing that it deserves. A small community group that has room for more – room for you? — to help build a public memorial so that those people who were sold south are not forgotten, so that their names – Roda, 14 years; Mary, 2 years; Augustus, 4 years; Florah, 23 years; Susan, 7 months; Margaret Coven, a free woman – as former members of our communities, are re-membered back home. We can all do that – our children can do it, you can do it – pledge to re-member – Simon, a free man and Regina, six weeks old – any of the names that are on this poster. We can be part of the healing.
I am drawn to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project because I believe that remembering can be healing. There are so many lasting wounds from the seeds of white supremacy planted in the past, its toxic flowers blooming still in our time. This story, this history, is our nearest wound. And one that was not getting much attention until we brought our attention as a congregation to it. One that was not getting much healing, until we brought our institutional and personal attention to it. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are made for these times.
We don’t have to get all of East Brunswick or Middlesex County or New Jersey involved. My sense is that it would be beneficial to have more people involved – more from this congregation, more from other local congregations and community-based organizations throughout the region – but history tells us that change is not linear, change can happen even when it is a small group of people who come together in outrage and sorrow.
Change happens when we vote.
Change happens when you come to a Lost Souls planning meeting on the first Tuesday of each month (yes, that’s this Tuesday) at 7pm.
Change happens when we understand that we all can be little people living love out loud.
May it be so. Amen.
 Deyle, Stephen (2007). “Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life”. America: History and Life with Full Text.