This blog is dedicated to the memory of the King Family as they were one of Newark’s Black founding families.
In the book, Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, Richard Newman has a chapter entitled “A Chosen Generation”: Black Founders and Early America. He wrote:
“Black founders” is a fancy term to describe the charter generation of free blacks in early national America. Born in the eighteenth century, some free (like James Forten of Philadelphia)) but many enslaved (like Richard Allen, Prince Hall, and Venture Smith, all of whom struggled mightily for their freedom), black founders came of age just as the American nation took shape….For they were of a generation that first battled bondage in an organized fashion, the generation that created vibrant free black institutions throughout the nation, and that innovated protest tactics—from establishing print as a key form of black activism to aiding fugitive slaves and distressed free blacks to forming the first national conventions dedicated to racial justice and independence—which still held sway on the eve of the Civil War.”
Given Newman’s definition of “Black Founders”, I maintain that the King Family was one of Newark’s Black founding families. I have chosen to focus on Rev. John A. King simply because there is more in the public record on him than his brothers. But, make no mistake about it, the lives of the other King brothers, especially Jacob and Abraham, are also noteworthy.
Over the past few years, my cousin Andrea and I have pieced together the King brothers’ early lives. Based on the 1830 census, John was born about 1790 in Morris County, NJ making him the oldest of Lucy King’s sons. Abraham was born around 1795. Their mother was a slave on Abraham Ogden’s estate in Morristown, NJ. We do know that they were mulatto and, based on his mother giving her 2nd son the name Abraham Ogden King, we assume that their father was Abraham Ogden or someone close to him. Both John and Abraham were also tradesmen which tells us that they occupied a more privileged status among other slaves. We don’t know when they became free or how they learned their trade, but Abraham Ogden’s estate was settled in 1802 and we assume John and Abraham were freed thereafter. Their mother remained a slave while some of their younger siblings were freed under the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1804 after completing their service terms.
Sometime prior to 1820, the King brothers met Rev. Christopher Rush, another Black founder. Together with Rev. Rush, they founded the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (now known as the Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church) in Newark in 1822. This church was the first black church founded in Newark and was also considered to be a sister church to the Mother Zion Church in Lower Manhattan that was founded in 1796. Rev. Rush would go on to become the Bishop of the A.M.E. Zion Church in 1828. As stated in a previous post, before he left to become a bishop, he sold his land to Jacob D. King who built an Underground Railroad House in 1830.
I should add that around 1820, John married Phebe Beard who was from Delaware. They ended up having 6 children: John Jr., Mary Rebecca, Cornelia, Robert, Edward, and Christopher Rush King. That John named one of his children after Rev. Rush indicates how close a colleague and friend he considered Rev. Rush to be. Abraham married Mary McIntosh in Morristown, NJ in 1824 and they had 2 sons, Abraham Ogden King, Jr. and William.
The A.M.E. Zion Church in Newark was active in both the Underground Railroad and in the education of all Blacks. By 1826, the Church was teaching Blacks, both young and old, how to read and write. According to the Township of Newark records, On April 14, 1828, Abraham and John walked into the town meeting with a petition asking for funding for a colored school. Please note that this school had already been in existence for years. They were only asking for formal funding from the town. They received limited funding initially and were able to have a formal budget for the school from 1836 onward.
In the early years, the Colored School, as it came to be known, was located first in the A.M.E. Zion Church and then in the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Church. It wasn’t until 1864, when James Baxter became the principal, that the Colored School had their own building. The Colored School lasted until 1909. I should also mention that two of Jacob’s daughters, Marcia and Harriet King, were teachers in the Colored School.
At the same time that the King brothers were educating Blacks, building churches, and harboring fugitive slaves, between the mid-1820’s and early-1830’s, they were also holding down full-time jobs in the carpentry trade. Abraham was a carpenter and Jacob was a cooper. However, John was one of the four Black planemakers in the United States prior to the Civil War. The others were Cesar Chelor of Wrentham, MA, John Teasman, Jr., a fellow Newarker whose father became the principal of the New York African Free School in Manhattan in 1797, and George Ball of New York City.
You may ask yourself what exactly was a planemaker. Well, in the 18th and 19th centuries, woodworking was a specialized activity. Carpenters, cabinetmakers, and joiners used a variety of tools in their trade. A “plane” was one such tool that shaved down a piece of wood to a particular thickness. The plane held an iron chisel in a fixed position so the wood could evenly be removed from the surface. There were different types of wooden planes used to create different surfaces. For example, you had utilitarian planes and planes that created moldings and edges. Hence, planemakers made planes and they were considered to be toolmakers. Wooden planes were used up until the Industrial Revolution.
After researching John’s career as a planemaker, I have come across a couple of inaccuracies in the public record on him. There have been several websites and articles that list John’s years as a planemaker as only being between 1835-1837. One of the most notable is a website on African-American woodworkers in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the Newark City directory has him clearly listed as being a planemaker from 1836-1846. Since the directory was only published in 1836, he may have even worked earlier than that. In addition, there was an article written by Ronald Pearson called “Hand Tools: A Significant Find” in The Chronicle of the Early American Industries (Vol.37:49-50) . In the article, Pearson writes about how he acquired an old tool box that had 38 wooden planes, 13 of which were made by John A. King. He hypothesizes that John was only a “jobber” working for two white planemakers, the Andruss brothers. There is no basis in fact for his hypothesis as John was an independent planemaker with his own business. In his later years, he was known to have only worked with James Searing, another Newark planemaker. By not doing the primary research that would have indicated John’s long career as a planemaker and insinuating that John couldn’t possibly work for himself, these researchers have done a disservice to his memory. Today, they stand corrected.
In the early 1830’s, John become very active in the abolitionist movement and he also became an ordained minister in the A.M.E. Zion Church in Newark at this time. He participated in local, state, and national anti-slavery societies as well as national Negro conventions. Through these activities, he met some of the most well-known white abolitionists of the day like the Tappan brothers and William Lloyd Garrison. In addition, he also started writing for The Liberator.
He also met more often and socialized with other well-known early Black abolitionists like Rev. Amos N. Freeman, David Ruggles, Rev.Theodore S. Wright, and Rev. Samuel Cornish, who later became a minister at the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Church in Newark. In fact, by the late 1830’s, John was also writing for Cornish’s Colored American newspaper.
In his newspaper articles, John addressed the concerns of the day. These included the issue of colonization. In 1816, the American Colonization Society was founded. The Presbyterian Church was a main proponent of the colonization of free Blacks to Africa and later to the Caribbean after 1834. Many free Blacks in Newark, including John, were vocal anti-colonizationists. Having grown up in the shadow of the Revolutionary War, these people believed that they, too, sang America. It was the US that they called home and they saw all attempts to remove them from the US as nothing more than an extension of slavery’s hand.
The colonization movement hit close to home. In 1839, One of the first ministers of the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Church, Rev. T. P. Hunt emigrated to Trinidad with his family and some members of the congregation. In 1841, Rev. Hunt returned to Newark and met with his old congregation and told them what he encountered. Very little was positive for they had been deceived into emigrating in the first place. John then wrote the article below in the Colored American. Please note the resolutions made.
Another topic John was concerned about was the restoration of Black citizen’s voting rights. From 1790-1807, free Blacks and women had the right to vote in New Jersey. In 1807, the state of NJ, disenfranchised over 3,000 free Blacks and untold number of women. John took note of this Black disenfranchisement in an article for the Colored American.
From the mid-1830’s to the mid-1840’s, John, in addition to continuing to preach at the Newark A.M.E. Zion Church, was also a minister at the Mother Zion Church in NYC as well as the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Eatontown, NJ which was part of Shewsbury Township back then. In Carter G. Woodson’s book, The History of the Negro Church, he mentions John A. King as being one of the leaders in A.M.E. Zion Church between 1830 and 1840.
John is also listed in all history books pertaining to the founding of the A.M.E. Zion Church. Moreover, John, Abraham, and Jacob are also listed in the Black Abolitionist Papers which is a testament itself to their abolitionist activities during their lifetimes. I consider this to be an honor.
In 1848, the Newark Daily Advertiser reported a fire at John’s house on 20 Academy Street in Newark.
Most of the inside of the house was destroyed. We don’t really know if he was ever able to rebuild his house.
Over a year ago, I also found two articles written in 1849 in the Newark Daily Advertiser that broke my heart. The tears flowed uncontrollably. In January 1849, John’s wife Phebe died which, together with the fire, quite possible made him depressed. It was on April 6th and 7th, 1849, that the Newark Daily Advertiser announced his suicide below.
After his death on 04/05/1849, John’s brother William was left to settle his affairs. It wasn’t until 1852 that his estate was settled.
In the 1850 census, John’s 2 youngest children, Edward and Christopher, are living with William.
After reading that article, I wondered how often do we consider the needs of those who lead our flock. Do we really know how well are shepards are doing? John was a preacher who comforted and led others. Was he being comforted? I shed tears for a man who did so much for others, but couldn’t do enough for himself. Tears, tears, and more tears.
I would be remiss if I ended my blog post on this note. Those who know me also know I just won’t do that. I truly believe it is up to those of us alive to give voice to our ancestors, to allow them to speak in a voice that is their own, and to correct the inaccuracies about them. Likewise, I believe it is up to us descendants to remember our role model ancestor, our radiant roots, in a positive light. If we don’t, then who will? So, 165 years after the death of my ancestor, Rev. John A. King, I offer a prayer of remembrance to him.
Dear Uncle John,
I want to THANK YOU for the wonderful life you left behind. It has truly been an honor to retrace your footsteps. You have made us proud to call you an esteemed ancestor. We claim all aspects of your life and the lives of your brothers, as our own now. We exalt you for making Newark, NJ a better place for all African-Americans at a time when we were not considered to be full citizens. That you never gave up the call for equal rights is laudable. Your quest for equality showed us just how much a true American you were and how much you believed in the ideals of the American Revolution—freedom, liberty, and equal rights for all.
I want you to know that you were loved, not only by your immediate family and by us, your descendants, but also, by God. God never failed you–not even in your greatest moment of despair. I pray that you have continued to find comfort in His arms. You served an awesome God — a God that we continue to serve.
God bless you, John, and the legacy you left behind. Continue to rest in peace as we continue to spread your good name and the good deeds you did during your lifetime. You are still loved and remembered.
We call your name, John, we… call… your… name…
If I could speak to John, I would tell him that his extended family is still hanging strong in Newark—-right across from where he used to live at 20 Academy St. Our family has never left Newark.