On the road again: next stop Timbuctoo

Published 4:01 pm Monday, April 1, 2024

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Could those old local stories about enslaved people going to ‘Timbuctoo’ be true? I had to find out, so I’m on the road again, this time to track down more possible Washington NC connections to one of New Jersey’s ‘cradles of liberty’ for freedom seekers on the underground railroad.

Timbuctoo was an all-Black community founded was founded in 1826. It was a well-known destination on the underground railroad. Deeds on file in the office of the Burlington County Clerk confirm that the first land purchases by African Americans in what is now known as Timbuctoo occurred in September of 1826. The name Timbuctoo first noted on a deed in 1830. Many of those early settlers purchased their land from Quakers, many of whom were abolitionists associated with Philadelphia’s Quaker Abolitionists movement.

The name “Timbuctoo” was chosen as a name for this antebellum community of formerly enslaved and free African Americans. African history and African American history, as well as other documented sources described Timbuktu in Mali Africa as a great African civilization. It was a place of commercial wealth and opportunity and a well-known community of education.

From the narrative of Mali Africa’s Timbuktu, early Timbuctoo settlers chose to build their aspirations on these ideals for the new community they were developing.

Timbuctoo, before the Civil War, was a thriving community that established institutions like the African Union School (1834), the Zion Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal African Church and Cemetery (1854.)

Census documents show Timbuctoo’s population was over 125 people in the mid-nineteenth century. The 1880 Census identified Timbuctoo as a distinct village within Westampton Township, enumerating 108 residents in 29 households.

Timbuctoo was also an established stop on the Underground Railroad. Located along the north bank of the North Branch of Rancocas Creek, Timbuctoo was easily accessible from the Delaware River, making it a strategic location for the Underground Railroad.

New Jersey hosted two of the most well-known people working the underground railroad. Harriet Tubman worked as a hotel maid in Cape May in southern New Jersey to fund her escapes on the underground railroad in Maryland, to help other freedom seekers there get to northern states.

Dr. William Still, born in Burlington County NJ, was one the most important abolitionists operating the underground railroad. His book, The Underground Railroad published in 1872, chronicles the accounts of freedom seeker. One enslaved man, Mr. Jacob Brown is listed in the book as having escaped from Washington, NC.

I can’t believe I lived in Burlington, NJ for over 25 years and did not realize that New Jersey had more all Black communities that served as freedom seeking refuges of all northern states.

Lawn Side NJ in Camden County, now renamed Snow Hill, had the best barbecue ribs I’ve ever eaten. I had no idea at that time I was standing there eating ribs that I was in one of the ‘cradles of liberty’ for freedom seekers in south Jersey.

Spring Town was a community in Cumberland County that was a safe haven for freedom seekers as well, Marshal Town located in Salem County. Timbuctoo was in Burlington County, also a few miles from where I once lived. So, I’m headed back there to trace Washington’s underground railroad history and see what else I can find there.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.