Jacob’s Chapel, Colemantown Meeting House, and the adjacent cemetery are all that remain of the early-19th century free black community of Colemantown, known in part for its association with the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves were sheltered and moved through Burlington County. Jacob’s Chapel was constructed in 1865-67 in the community of Colemantown, an African-American settlement that became a known stop on the Underground Railroad. By the time the church was constructed, the Colemantown Meeting House, of earlier construction, had been used as a schoolhouse, Sunday School and worship space, likely moved several times, including in 1965 to its current location when the road was widened. The adjacent cemetery is one of the oldest African American burial grounds in the state and contains the burial sites for Civil War veterans and members of the prominent Still family, including Dr. James Still. Of additional significance is the church-owned property across the street from the chapel and meeting house, which is an archeological site that has the potential for additional research to shed light on the growth and experience of the congregation.
In addition to its historical significance related to the establishment of the local free black community, the church and its congregation members remain strong advocates for social issues. Most notably, the congregation was central to the creation of the Mount Laurel Doctrine, which prohibits economic discrimination against the poor when developing land use regulations, specifically the development of low and moderate income housing.
Today, the modest church, meeting house, and cemetery are under-recognized and undervalued resources of local history in southern New Jersey, which has made it difficult for the congregation and its nonprofit foundation to find support for the restoration of the Meeting House after the devastating flooding that occurred during the Superstorm Sandy. The flood water of the 2012 storm increased the structural failure to the meeting house. Partial collapse of the floor framing has rendered the modest one-story community room unusable for the congregation, meaning that the primarily social space, kitchen and restrooms for the church are no longer accessible.
The congregation received some Federal disaster relief to repair the structural damage to the meeting house. However, additional engineering expenses and costs associated with exploring ways to protect the fragile structure from future flooding events have taxed the fundraising capacity of the congregation and its foundation and placed this historic resource in jeopardy. A recently completed preservation plan for the church, meeting house and cemetery has placed the cost of repair, restoration and site improvements at $1.3 million. Preservation New Jersey recognizes the significance of this site, not only to African-American history, but to telling an important chapter of New Jersey’s story.
Contact: Marcia Cornish
Jacobs Chapel Colemantown Foundation