African American history

Special Collections and University Archives (SC/UA) holds several manuscript collections relating to the African American experience in New Jersey. For a summary of this history from slavery through the Civil Rights movement download the article "A History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey" by L.A. Greene (2012), which includes references to primary sources (PDF). 

Left: photo from the Rutgers University Photograph Collection: (Student life: black student activism)


Among the collections at SC/UA are archival records that relate directly to slavery in New Jersey as well as to the lives of free African Americans during the pre-Civil War period and the Civil War itself. For a fuller description of these collections download an article by Ron Becker about Rutgers manuscript sources relating to the African-American community in New Jersey.

African Association of New Brunswick, 1817-1824

The  African Association of New Brunswick was founded to provide funds for the African School in Parsippany, N.J., which was established in 1816 by the Presbyterian Synod of New York and New Jersey to educate "young men of Colour to be Teachers and Preachers to People of Colour" in the United States and elsewhere. The collection consists of a minute book containing the association's constitution, a list of subscribers, receipts, and certificates of owners permitting their slaves to join the association. It also contains texts of addresses delivered before the association by Jeremiah Gloucester of Philadelphia (January 1, 1820) and Augustavus Cesar (January 1, 1821)

Finding aid: contact SC/UA for assistance

Peter Still (1801-1868)

Peter Still, who was born a slave in 1801, was able to buy his own freedom after forty years of enslavement. His manuscript letters and notebooks chronicle his efforts to purchase the freedom of his wife and family in Alabama. They also include documents relating to the publication of a biography by Kate Pickard in 1856. Peter Still was the older brother of William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

New Brunswick Colonization Society, 1838-1854

The New Jersey Colonization Society was founded in 1825 as the local chapter of the American Colonization Society. Its goal was to emancipate slaves and establish a colony of free blacks in Liberia, in order to Christianize Africa. The organization was revived in 1838 through the efforts of William Halsey of Newark, who won financial support of hundreds of middle- and upperclass New Jersey residents, which enabled the chapter to purchase a ship and land in the Liberian colony in 1853. Opposition from free blacks was one of the reasons why the attempts of the Colonization Society, whose views would be considered racist in this day and age, ultimately failed. The records of the New Brunswick Colonization Society includes minutes, memberships lists, and constitutions.

Finding aid: contact SC/UA for assistance


Rutgers SC/UA holds several collections that document the battles for legal rights and fair practices in employment and benefits for African-Americans. 

Paul Robeson (1898–1976)

Born in Princeton, Paul Robeson was a celebrated athlete, singer, actor and political activist. The third black student at Rutgers, Robeson was an outstanding scholar, and an All-American athlete. His advocacy of Marxism, however, led to persecution by the U.S. government and virtually ended his career.

Ernest Thompson (1907-1971)

Ernest Thompson was a union official who helped found the National Negro Labor Council, and was also a community activist who helped bring about political and economic gains for African Americans in Orange, New Jersey, and nearby communities.

John W. Alexander (1919-1990)

John Alexander was a pediatrician and educator who was a prime mover in developing the Children’s Hospital in Newark. His papers, which span the years 1964 to 1968, document his activities as the first African-American president of the Orange, NJ Board of Education, where he developed a desegregation plan for the town.

Donald S. Harris (1940-)

Donald Harris, a Rutgers graduate of the Class of 1963, was a Civil Rights activist during his student days, and was a fieldworker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in southwest Georgia. In 1963 he was arrested in Americus, Georgia, while trying to register African-American voters, and spent several months in prison. He also took a stand against the Vietnam War.

  • The Rutgers University Archives: Donald Harris ('63) alumni file containing newspaper clippings and correspondence
  • Donald Harris oral history: available online


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Joseph Browne, Vickie Donaldson, and other students at Rutgers, Newark advocated for the rights of African-American students at the state university, where they were under-represented and ignored.