A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Africa in Matawan Township: 1855, 1936

Detail from Map of Middletown Point, Monmouth County, New Jersey, surveyed and published by Thomas A Hurley, 1855
Next time you're in the Matawan Aberdeen Public Library, take a close look at the old map on the wall over the computers in the reference section. The section of town east of Atlantic Avenue, roughly where the high school is currently located, was once called Africa. It was the part of town where the African Americans lived since pre-Revolutionary times.

During the Great Depression, the Franklin D Roosevelt Administration formed the Works Progress Administration to provide employment for the countless people out of work. Light town histories, like Matawan: 1686-1936, were standard fare for the Federal Writers' Project. One can only imagine the sort of discussions those writers had with local officials to prompt the following text, which followed some paragraphs about the nicer parts of town:
"The entire borough is not, of course, a verdant strip of paradise, nor is the township studded with sunken gardens and seven-bathroom mansions. No able-bodied person is on direct relief in Matawan Borough; but across Lake Matawan lies the district known many years ago as Africa, because of a Negro population that has since been largely replaced by whites. Through the center runs Atlantic Avenue, a street that would serve as a slide rule for the social worker. . . .

One of the most colorful local names, "Skintown," is sometimes given to the section of Atlantic Avenue lying between the two railroad lines. The story is that some years ago a contractor built several cheap houses and sold them at fancy prices.

Omar Khayyam
The old Africa with its colony of manumitted slaves dating to pre-Revolutionary times is gone. But there is a new Africa west of the lake. On Orchard Street is Matawan's Harlem, albeit a diminuitive one without a single cabaret, but with enough exhibition of human frailties in the more liberal tradition of Omar Khayyam to stimulate the missionary efforts of the pastor of the Second Baptist Church. The district is really nothing more than a row of little houses, backed up against the lake shore; and most of the occupants are respected citizens. But there are enough exceptions to keep tongues busy and ears open elsewhere in town."

Sources: Matawan: 1686-1936, pp 11-12, written and illustrated by workers of the Federal Writers' Project, 1936. Photo from Wikimedia appears in the Wikipedia article Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.


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