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The Fight for Archeology at the Thomas Mundy Peterson Home Site


Thomas Mundy Peterson

On the morning of March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson was working in the stables behind the Perth Amboy home of J. L. Kearny. His employer came out to show a newspaper announcing the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been certified by the Secretary of State as the law of the land:


The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.


It so happened that on that same day Perth Amboy was holding a special referendum election to approve or reject a revised city charter and Kearny encouraged Peterson to participate. Thomas Mundy Peterson (1824─1904) was born in what is now Metuchen, NJ (then Woodbridge), and moved with his parents to Perth Amboy in 1828, living there the rest of his life. Peterson said he would think about it, suggesting he might wait until the general elections next month. On his way home for lunch, he bumped into Marcus Spring, who also encouraged him. Spring, with wife Rebecca, had established the progressive Raritan Bay Union and Eagleswood Academy, a cross between utopian community, artists’ colony, and boarding school. Peterson likely mulled things over while eating his lunch, perhaps discussing it with his wife, Daphne. He decided to indeed cast a ballot at City Hall in favor of the charter while walking back to work, becoming the first African American in the nation to vote with the full guarantee and protection of the U.S. Constitution. He embraced civic life thereafter, always voting, attending political party conventions, serving as a juror, and even running (unsuccessfully) for local office. His life spanned from the promise of Reconstruction to the reversals of Plessy v. Ferguson.


This raises an interesting question—where, exactly, in Perth Amboy did the Peterson home stand where he made his historically significant decision? Researching my book about Peterson, “To Cast a Freedman’s Vote,” I determined the two-story board-and-batten-clad house was located at 9 Commerce Lane, a no-longer-extant lane extending south from Commerce Street, between High and Rector Streets. They acquired the property through a legacy left to Daphne by Andrew Bell, who had owned her enslaved mother, Bette. Peterson lived there the rest of his life, including as a poverty-stricken widower and charity case, the property having been sold to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church where the family were members. He died on February 4, 1904 and the Church sold the property to the Roessler & Hasslacher Chemical Company and the house disappears by 1913.


In the intervening years, the only development on the land was an electrical supply company’s slab-foundation warehouse (1950s to early 2000s) and is now a vacant lot. Presuming minimal disturbance, this holds out the possibility that an archeological investigation could turn up materials from the Peterson family. The property is currently owned by Kushner Real Estate, part of residential development plans since the early 2000s. The connection with Peterson was not generally known at the time of the initial permit processes. I alerted Perth Amboy City Council in 2011. A letter in support of performing archeology prior to development was presented by the Perth Amboy Historic Preservation Office and received general support.


In 2012, I was in negotiations with Kushner to allow access to the site to a professional archeologist I had found who agreed to work gratis. This fell through when Kushner’s agreement insisted they control publication of any findings. The project languished for over a decade due to unrelated litigation between Kushner and the City.


In 2020, there were suggestions of a new development plan and City Hall indicated a desire to make archeology of the site a prerequisite for approvals. The Kushner organization, however, has expressed hostility to the idea, despite continued support from the public, local historians, and City Hall, including a proclamation read by Mayor Helmin J. Caba during the City’s 2022 Thomas Mundy Peterson Day program. A pending application has been made for a Certificate of Eligibility for inclusion on the State and National Register of Historic Places. Now that the significance of the site is generally-known, there may be a regulatory requirement for a Section 106 review, depending on funding sources and permits. This is not, however, guaranteed and City Hall needs to know enough of their constituents care to insist it remain part of a negotiation involving millions of dollars in revenue. I have tried to raise awareness in local media (https://www.nj.com/news/2023/04/the-kushners-own-a-piece-of-njs-black-history-will-they-let-anyone-explore-it.html /


All we are asking for is a little sensitivity to the historical and cultural significance Thomas Mundy Peterson still embodies in the community’s pride-of-place. We do not seek to prevent or unduly delay development, if that is what the community agrees to. The Kushner organization has yet to make their concerns known, but they would gladly be addressed. It is even possible nothing will be found, and all the fuss will have been for nothing. All that is being asked for is the chance to seize what is probably the last opportunity we will ever get to find out—and, just maybe, if we are so fortunate, discover and save some material connection to a man who was part of a history that still resonates in contemporary discussions about race, suffrage, and civil rights.


Gordon Bond is an independent historian, author, and lecturer. He is the founder and ePublisher of www.GardenStateLegacy.com, a resources website dedicated to New Jersey history. He designed and guest curated exhibits for the Middlesex County Office of Arts and History, the Abraham Staats House in South Bound Brook, and the Historical Association of Woodbridge Township. Photographs and illustrations from Gordon Bond and Perth Amboy City Historian John Kerry Dyke.

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