A monument honoring two men, who risked everything to help southern slaves find freedom in the north, was unveiled on Friday afternoon. In the 1850s, a white man Josiah Huntoon, and a former black slave William Van Rensalier, manned secret routes and safe houses to assist escaping slaves on their journey north.
The two men are depicted holding lanterns symbolically lighting the path towards freedom. “It fills my heart with pride and joy to know that within Paterson’s boundaries and landscape two men guided by an enormous faith in the dignity of every human being led a clandestine movement of people out of slavery,” said Sonia Torres speaking for her husband mayor Jose “Joey” Torres, who was attending a conference in Washington D.C.
Huntoon was a spice merchant with vast wealth in the city. Van Rensalier was an engineer. Both were friends. Both abolitionists. As conductors of what is called the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Station of the Underground Railroad, both led families of African-Americans to freedom.
“It was during this time, Garret Mountain, the hill, served as a lookout point to a small factory on Broadway,” said Torres. “When the way was clear a lantern was placed on the safe house’s tower and the escaping slaves and their guides would enter the city into rooms and basements until the following night.”
“This monument pays an important tribute to Paterson’s history,” said Nellie Pou, business administrator and state senator representing the 35th legislative district. “It was only 18 years ago we learned the real significance of this site as part of the Underground Railroad.”
Although Van Rensalier and Huntoon have helped countless families throw off the shackles of slavery, there appears to be no real count of the number of individuals or families that came through the city’s stop. “There’s no real record of how many people came through,” said Jimmy Richardson, historian.
There appears to be scant awareness of history amongst city residents, said Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman. She said today’s youth lack an awareness of history, so monuments like the one unveiled today will serve to spark some sort of an interest. “We have to remind our people, our family members, and our friends of the hard struggle we had to endure to get to where we are today,” said Cotton.
Anthony Davis, 1st Ward councilman, recalled passing by the site from John F. Kennedy High School on his way home. Davis did not know the historical significance of the site until a teacher informed him of it.
Speaking of his ancestor, Ron Van Rensalier, a great grandson of the abolitionist, called the two men good Samaritans.
The unveiling of the monument, which cost approximately $206,000 to build, was attended by roughly 100 people in the blistering cold. The city’s parking authority contributed $200,000 — inclusive professional costs the authority expended upwards of $275,000 — with the City National Bank donating $5,000, and North Jersey Federal Credit Union contributing another $1,000.
Passaic County picked up the cost for landscaping and site preparation contributing $171,000 to the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Foundation. The New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials also donated $1,000 to the foundation.
“It will make a passerby stop and ask what is all this about?” read prepared remarks from Benjie Wimberly, assemblyman representing the state’s 35th legislative district.
“We are who we are because of what happened here,” said Tony Perez, director of the authority. The authority has been working on the project for 11 years. Perez thanked Theodore “TJ” Best and the county’s board of freeholder for their generous contribution.
“We now have visual testimony to what happened on this site,” said Kenneth Simpson, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission which has designated the location as a historic site.
“This monument is long overdue,” said congressman and former city mayor Bill Pascrell.