10/2011: Historic resources consultant Janet Sheridan has earned a Commendation from the NJ Legislature for her work to document Marshalltown. Janet is working on a National Register nomination for Marshalltown as a historic district.
Marshalltown is a 19th-century free-black settlement that in its heyday included perhaps twenty homes, two churches, two cemeteries and a school. It was named for Thomas Marshall, a free black man who purchased several parcels of land and began subdividing lots for other African-American families as early as the 1830s. The community was viable through the mid-twentieth century when it began to decline.
Marshalltown is one of several southern New Jersey settlements where free landowning African-Americans prospered throughout the 19th century. It was part of a larger movement called the “First Emancipation,” an early trend of freeing slaves bolstered locally by the strong Quaker presence in South Jersey. Free African-Americans often provided labor for white-owned farms, but established independence in their own communities as home and business owners, founding new churches and schools. Since South Jersey contained routes of the Underground Railroad, which aided fugitive slaves in their efforts to escape to the north, these communities also provided escapees from the southern states with opportunities to settle with other free blacks.
Marshalltown is a prime example of this type of settlement, located in an isolated area that borders on the rich farmland in Mannington Township and the tidal wetlands of the Salem River. Its proximity to water transportation increases the likelihood that Marshalltown was active within the Underground Railroad.
Today, few historic structures remain in the identified Marshalltown historic district, which has been determined eligible for the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. Extant built resources include an abandoned 1885 residence, an active church, a vacant school building and two cemeteries. The majority of the district’s lots are potential archaeological sites of early residences. These remaining buildings and sites together form a cohesive district representative of a rare and underappreciated African-American historic resource.
The extant house of worship, one of two once established in Marshalltown, is Mt. Zion African Union Methodist Protestant Church, a two-story frame building constructed in 1879 for a congregation founded in 1844. The two cemeteries, Mt. Zion and Little Bethel, contain a total of 60 surviving gravestones, including those of Thomas Marshall, other community leaders, and four servicemen (including two Civil War U.S. Colored Troops).
A standing frame house, constructed in 1885 by church leader William H. Thomas for his son, incorporates what appears to be an earlier residence into its current two-story configuration. Thought to be the first documented black-built house in Salem County, it gives us a significant beginning for understanding area African American vernacular architecture.
The one-room frame schoolhouse, originally constructed or rebuilt circa 1880 in Marshalltown, was moved in 1934 to its current location. Historically a black school, it may have become integrated in the late 1940s. Marshalltown School was closed as a school in 1951 and converted into a residence. Despite its conversion, this rare surviving example of a once racially-segregated school retains a high degree of architectural integrity.
Part of what endangers Marshalltown is what drew the free African community to this isolated area where its residents could live independently and free. It is this same isolation and independence that have allowed its history to fade into obscurity, without significant awareness or advocacy for its preservation and use.
Marshalltown is subject to both natural and man-made threats. Woodlands have now overtaken what used to be cleared land, and the marsh continues to make portions of Marshalltown saturated and unlivable.
Neglect and deterioration constitute the most significant threat to Marshalltown’s survival. A proposal to move the school, which is owned by Mannington Township, would further diminish the integrity of the district. Overgrowth of vegetation at the two cemeteries and vandalism to markers is also evident. Decades absent of planning and attention have left this district as a whole, and its individual buildings, vulnerable to erasure.
An extensive survey and documentation project completed in 2010 has raised some awareness of the historical significance of Marshalltown. In addition to shedding light on the perhaps nationally significant 19th-century free black experience in the region, Marshalltown also speaks to changing agricultural patterns of use and rural settlement in a part of New Jersey that is still very much open space. Preservation New Jersey encourages recognition and further study of this invaluable relic of African-American, New Jersey, and northeast U.S. history.