Englewood Makes History

Arnold E. Brown


Arnold Brown, born April 12, 1932, in Englewood is connected to the strongest and deepest anchor and sinker roots that provide strength and stability to the city's black community in the 4th ward, Bennettsville, South Carolina, Skunk Hollow in Harrington Township, and the Ramapough Munsee Lenape nation in Bergen, Passaic, and Rockland counties. Brown’s mother, Hortense Melle Stubbs was born in 1906 in Bennettsville South Carolina. In the late 19th century, hundreds of black Bennettsville residents began to head north to work as domestic servants, chauffeurs, gardeners in the mansion being built for the prominent industrialists and bankers on the city’s East Hill. Known for its cotton plantations worked by enslaved African Americans, after the Civil War, the small town’s economy revolved around the railroad and a cotton mill. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the condition of the town’s African Americans deteriorated. The rise of Jim Crow segregation, convict leasing, disfranchisement and lynching and the boll weevil’s destruction of the cotton economy convinced many of the town’s black residents to look North. Today, there are still dozens of African American families in Englewood with ties to Bennettsville.

Brown’s father, John Scott Brown, a postal worker, was born in Englewood in 1907 and had deep roots in Bergen County, another anchor root holding the 4th ward’s black community in place. He was a direct descendent of an enslaved man and woman named J. and Susan Oliver, who married in the mid-1700s. Bergen County had more enslaved African Americans than any other County. During their lifetimes, enslaved African Americans made up more than 20% of Bergen County’s population and more than 40% of its workforce. At the time most of the enslaved people in Bergen County had arrived on slave ships from West Africa in either Perth Amboy or New York Harbor. The enslaved worked in all occupations and in many cases built most of the County’s thriving Dutch and English farms, including planting and harvesting the wheat, cornand rye, maintaining the orchards and herding cattle, pigs, and horses. Enslaved Africans and second and third generation enslaved Africans also did much of the work in the iron mines of northwestern Bergen County. The copper mine in what is now Arlington, that helped make Arent Schuyler wealthy, was discovered by a man he enslaved.

The enslaved in Bergen County, like J and Susan Oliver, faced a particularly brutal form of slavery. In the South, the larger plantations offered some degree of protection from the constant surveillance and cruelties of white enslavers. In Bergen County, however, most enslaved African Americans lived and worked in close proximity to their enslavers on small farms. The tensions that built in such environments often led to severe punishments for infractions of the slave code. Runaway slaves were often branded with their enslaver’s initials, enslaved people who stole or committed other “crimes” were whipped bare bodied as they were cuffed to the back of a moving cart. Many enslaved persons faced the lash at the County’s whipping post where the statue of General Enoch Poor now stands on the Hackensack greens. Bergen County was also known for the “frequent” “burning” of enslaved African Americans who committed certain crimes. These “crimes” could range from murder to physically attacking a white enslaver. According to reports “One way of punishing a slave for murder was to cut off his right hand, burn it before his eyes, then hang him, and afterward burn his body.’ The enslaved in Bergen County also had to face the daily fear of being illegally kidnapped and sold South by the infamous “Van Wickle Slave Ring,” led by Middlesex County Court Judge, Jacob Van Wickle.

As slavery declined in Bergen County in the 19th century, Arnold Brown’s 5x great grandparents, James and Catherine Oliver, found refuge and hope in Skunk Hollow, or “The Mountain,” a free black settlement in what is now Alpine. After some difficulty because of his former slave status, James Oliver was able to purchase land in Skunk Hollow in 1840. The Oliver’s established a family burial ground on their land. By the late 1800s, Skunk Hollow had 13 mostly home-owning households and a population of 75. One of the community’s wealthier residents, a man named William Thompson, also known as Reverend Billy, established a successful church named St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church, known as the “Swamp Church,” is now located in Sparkill, New York. James and Catherine’s son Joseph married an Englewood woman named Flora Ann Cisco and he settled in the Highwood section of Englewood in what is now the 3rd ward. And their granddaughter Ollie, married Arnold’s grandfather, a pullman porter named John Scott Brown, who also was born and raised in Englewood, in the 4th ward.

John Scott’s father, John Brown, is the tie to the third anchor root that connects the 4th ward to place. John Brown was born in the Ramapo Mountains into the Ramapough Munsee Lenape nation in Rockland County. The Ramapough, locally known as the Ramapough Mountain Indians or by the pejorative term “Jackson Whites,” are a munsee speaking group of the Lenape People, a subgroup of people under the Algonquian language speaking people. There were around 20,000 Lenni Lenape in New Jersey and parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York in the early 1600s when the Dutch colonists arrived. As a result of the mid 17the century Dutch wars of extermination, disease, and “Indian Removal,” the number of Lenape people had dwindled to several thousand by the 1800s. The Ramapoughwere part of the remaining Lenape groups. In the 18th and 19th centuries free Afro-Dutch and African-American migrants moved into the Ramapough mountains intermarrying with some of Munsee Lenape people. In the 19th and 20th century, many Ramapough people found work in the emerging cities of southern Bergen County and a number of these migrants, like Arnold’s great great grandfather, John Brown, settled in Englewood’s 4th ward.


When Arnold enrolled in Lincoln Elementary school on West Englewood Avenue in what was then known as “Little Texas,” Englewood’s schools had become increasingly segregated. Although New Jersey was one of twelve states that prohibited racially segregated schools, in 1936 Englewood had 66 “colored” schools serving 3,845 students and employing 419 black teachers. In Englewood, most black children were segregated into Lincoln elementary. The year before Brown was born, 70% of the children attending Lincoln were African American. When Brown started first grade in 1938, black students made up 90% of the student body. There were no black students at Cleveland elementary in the 3rd ward or Roosevelt elementary in the 2nd ward. The year Brown entered Lincoln, the City Council, under the guise of ‘overpopulation’ at Franklin Middle School, voted to segregate the city’s middle school population by creating a all black Junior High School at Lincoln. There were also no black teachers at Lincoln and the students faced inefficient teachers, discriminatory promotion practices, inadequate remedial work, prevented from transferring to other elementary schools even though this was common practice for white students and the city’s Board of Education. In 1945, Brown entered the integrated Dwight Morrow High School where he watched the legendary Dwight Morrow basketball player, Sherman White play against the legendary Coach Vince Lombardi’s St. Cecilia’s Saints. After graduating Dwight Morrow in 1949, Brown went on to Bowling Green State University where he earned a B.A. in Political Science and Psychology and then graduated from Rutgers Law School with a Juris Doctor Degree in 1957.


After graduating from Rutgers, Brown returned to Englewood where he set up his law practice. He soon joined the growing civil rights movement and helped build what would become the nationally known Englewood Movement that desegregated Englewood’s elementary schools and Bergen County’s swimming pools and notoriously discriminatory housing market. First as President of the Bergen County NAACP and later as President of the Bergen County Urban League, Brown played a critical role in efforts to integrate Englewood’s Quarles and Cleveland elementary schools. Brown’s civil rights activism led him to national prominence. On August 28, 1963, Brown sat several rows behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream,” speech. And the next year, Brown was part of a group of thirty civil rights leaders who met with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House. The next year, Bergen County voters elected Brown to the NJ State Assembly, making him the first African American from the County to sit in that legislative body. As an assemblyman, Brown authored the “Tenants Reprisal Act,” and “Prohibition of Discrimination in All Employment” bill. Brown also played a critical role in easing tensions during Englewood’s 1967 “race riot” and supported urban renewal projects to provide decent low-income housing to Englewood’s 4th ward. Brown’s legislative aide was a young Jewish civil rights activist named Byron Baer, who would go on to have a long-distinguished career in the NJ state legislature and serve as president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators. During the 1960s, Brown served on the Board of Directors of Rutgers University and the boards of the Bergen County Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army, and the New Jersey Law Enforcement Planning Agency.


In the 1970s and early 1980s Brown established the Dubois Book Center in his home, which became a center of African American and Black Studies in northern New Jersey. He began to conduct research into the almost invisible history of African Americans in Bergen County. Over the next three decades, Brown laid the groundwork for the study of black history in Englewood and Bergen County. Brown has done important work in recovering the history of and locating slave burial sites in the state. His recovery and mapping of the African American burial grounds of Gethsemane Cemetery in Little Ferry was groundbreaking. The cemetery is now listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places and is now managed by the Bergen County Department of Parks Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs. School children often visit the site and the cemetery hosts annual Juneteenth celebrations. Brown’s scholarship extends beyond slave burial sites to include important research and writing on 19th century black businesspeople in Bergen County including Alfred P Smith and Elizabeth Dulfur. He has conducted original research. Brown published an important chapter on African Americans in the Revolutionary War in Bergen County titled “Black Loyalists in Bergen County and ‘The Book of Negroes,’ which appears in an edited collection of essay The Revolutionary War in Bergen County: The Times That Tried Men’s Soul by Carol Karels. His work has also appeared in Images of America: Englewood and Englewood Cliffs and Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Woman.

Brown has also made significant contributions to our understanding of the role that African American soldiers from Bergen County played in the Civil War. At the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and most Congressmen opposed enlisting black soldiers in the Union Army. Initially Lincoln reassured southern states that he was opposed to ending slavery and supported removing free African Americans from the United States and moving them to countries like Haiti. Most New Jersey politicians were fiercely opposed to enlisting black soldiers. New Jersey’s pro southern and pro slavery “Cooperhead” Democratic Party, controlled the state legislature throughout the Civil War and won the gubernatorial race in 1864. Abraham Lincoln lost in New Jersey in 1860 to Democrat John Breckinridge and in 1864 against Democrat General George B McClellan. Bergen County voted overwhelmingly for these pro-slavery Democrats. In 1877, New Jersey voters elected McClellan 24th governor. Despite such opposition, Brown has helped uncover and tell the story of the successful mobilization of black men in New Jersey to enlist in the Union Army. By the end of the Civil War almost 3,000 black men from the state had served in the United State Colored Troops and as Brown reveals, at least 100 of these soldiers hailed from Bergen County. Bergen County’s own Sgt Samual Thompson played a key role in fighting for the fair treatment of black civil war veterans after the war ended. In 1865 Thompson forced the state of New Jersey to live up to its promise to pay the widows of Union soldiers a $6 a month pension. Until Thompson complained, New Jersey was only paying the widows of white soldiers.

As Brown pioneered the study of African Americans in Bergen County, he remained active in civic life. He served as a trustee on the Englewood Library board, as Chair of the Bergen County Juneteenth Celebration Committee, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the First Baptist Church of Teaneck, Member Bergen County Human Relations Committee, a member of the Bergen County Historic Preservation Advisory Board and has remained active in the Kappa Theta Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.


David Colman