Historic Lawnside

Historic Lawnside


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Lawnside, New Jersey . . . is one of only a few historically black self-governing towns remaining

in the United States. . . .dating back to the colonial period when a Quaker from the neighboring

 settlement of Haddonfield purchased several plots of land and resold them to Africans



Historic Lawnside Celebrates Heritage Day

By Junious Ricardo Stanton


On the fourth Saturday in June the uniquely historic African-American borough of Lawnside, New Jersey, celebrates what has come to be known as “Heritage Day,” a day long celebration featuring a parade, family activities in the park, youth baseball games, the kick-off of the Lawnside Summer Basketball League, a concert and later in the evening the festivities are capped with a huge fire works display. Lawnside, New Jersey is a self-governing African-American town with about 3,500 residents encompassing one and a half square miles located in Camden County twelve miles east of Philadelphia.

It is one of only a few historically black self-governing towns remaining in the United States. The town has always been black dating back to the colonial period when a Quaker from the neighboring settlement of Haddonfield purchased several plots of land and resold them to Africans who had run away from bondage or enslaved Africans (yes there was slavery in New Jersey) who used the land to grow crops to supplement the food their owners fed them. Gradually as blacks moved into the town it became a haven for runaway slaves and a stop on the fabled Underground Railroad. 

In fact, there is a direct blood connection and link with many Lawnside residents to the Underground Railroad because many are related to William Still (one of eighteen siblings) who served as secretary of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, the organization that helped hundreds of people of African descent to freedom. In 1872, Still published his book titled The Underground Railroad, detailing the operation of a clandestine system in which “free” blacks took an active role in securing the freedom of their enslaved brethren.

From the initial community of several plots of land the town grew, first calling itself Free Haven (for obvious reason), then Snow Hill (because several residents emigrated from Snow Hill, Maryland, but mostly because the sandy topography in certain sections of the town reminded people of snow covered hills, and finally Lawnside. The celebration used to be called the Fourth of July although it was rarely held July Fourth. Because so many other towns and organizations celebrated the holiday on the Fourth of July, it was hard to get them to participate in Lawnside’s parade. 

For several years the planners attempted to tie the celebration to Juneteenth which at that time was not as well known as it is now. The committee eventually settled on a name that uniquely describes the celebration, Lawnside Heritage Day.  

Clifford Still, a life long resident, a borough Council member and a distant relative of William Still explained the significance of the day, “I believe the significance of Heritage Day has to do with the life and history of Lawnside, the fact that it has been an all African-American community for all these years. It was incorporated (as a separate self-governing municipality) in April 26, 1927 and over the years it’s gone from the Fourth of July to Heritage Day. This gives family members who no longer live in Lawnside a chance to come back and socialize, spend a day in Lawnside and just to pay tribute to a great town in New Jersey. Heritage Day just enhances that and gives everybody a channel where we can sit down and have a good time and talk about old times.” 

New Jersey State Senator Wayne R. Bryant, a co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and also a life long resident of Lawnside, added, “One of the most important things we can do is to honor our own heritage, what we’ve meant not only to all of New Jersey but to this region. This is an African-American community that stands out stellar in terms of everything that it does from its young to its old. They have been contributors. We need to brag about such things as eighty per cent of our children or better go to college; things that other people don’t really know. We ought to brag about the fact that our municipal government has some of the best business landscapes in the region. We ought to brag about how we as a community have some of the lowest crime and we provide good recreational activities for our children and our seniors. We ought to brag that our seniors want to stay here as opposed to wanting to leave and it (Heritage Day) brings everybody home who has left to see their family and friends and really just break bread together.”

In addition the parade and activities in the park, individual families schedule their cook outs, family gatherings and reunions to coincide with Heritage Day. The Lawnside Historical Society used the occasion to sponsor a “Telling Our Story” session where residents were video- and audio-taped reminiscing about their personal experiences and memories of growing up in Lawnside and any family oral histories they could share to document the personal aspects of living in this unique community. 

They also sponsored an exhibit entitled “Lest We Forget,” a collection of authentic slave and Jim Crow era memorabilia, manumission papers, slave documents, chains, torture devices, pictures and post cards to show what our people endured and overcame. Joe Ragsdale, an African-American entrepreneur, owns the collection; his daughter was on hand to talk about and answer questions about the exhibit. 

Linda Waller, the president of the Lawnside Historical Society, explained why Heritage Day was an ideal time to sponsor the exhibit and collect additional Lawnside history. “Today we’re doing an oral history project and the Heritage Day is an opportunity to get a lot of people who come back to the town to reunite with their families and for the festivities and the good feelings. So this is a great opportunity for us to catch people and get their remembrances and also what they know about the history of the town orally. We’re doing video and audio here at the Community Center.

And it’s also important for people to know who we are, who they are and this gives us another opportunity, a golden opportunity to talk about the history of the town.

“Clinton Higgs, the chairman of the Heritage Day Committee, was pleased with the day’s events after a long period of planning. “We start in September, the first of September, to plan an event that takes place at the end of June, so it’s close to ten months. As a committee our goal is to make it better every year and sometime that can put a lot of pressure on yourself. To make it better involves more work. It’s all about the work, effort, plan, strategic planning, communicating, and all. I think this year was good — the weather was beautiful, the parade was good, everything was good. I think as days go by it will seem like it was a whole lot better.

We got feedback throughout the day — the comments were very positive and that’s what makes it worth doing.” 

The festivities carried well into the night as the fireworks attracted residents and non residents alike to the peaceful historically African-American community with a long and proud tradition.

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update 15 December 2011




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