Next time you walk on Broad Street, drive up Bloomfield Avenue or travel along the Passaic River on Route 21 ― know that indigenous people carved these roads long before Newark was a concept and much earlier than Europeans touched the grounds.
These roads in which we trek on without much thought were critical thoroughfares where nations traded, held ceremonies, and raised empires before Robert Treat, the European colonial settler noted by American historians as founding Newark.
This is what I learned from the fiercely intelligent and courageous, Dr. Eileen DeFreece, Associate Professor of Humanities at Essex County College.
A member of the Ramapough Lenaape, she belongs to one of the remaining nations still living in the area. The Lenaape call themselves “Keepers of the Pass,” a responsibility in which they protect the old passageways from New Jersey to New York.
Recently, Dr. Eileen DeFreece was asked by the Newark 350 Commission to assist in educating Newark celebrants about the critical role of native people in the celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary.
In an interview conducted by Essex County College students taking a TV production course with Jennifer Wager,DeFreece explains that native populations such as the Lenaape, greeted Robert Treat in the early 1600s at the banks of the Passaic River; offering his contingency of settlers the ability to establish themselves.
Video and Picture Credit: Footage provided by Communications Program in the Division of Humanities at Essex County College. Interview conducted by student’s in Professor Jennifer Wager’s CMS 110 TV. Photos extracted from video.
Knotting together the forked tongue of the white man, DeFreece points out that there really wasn’t much for Treat to set up because a well-structured, thriving nation already existed. Even Treat’s journals speak of villages lined along the Passaic River that spanned deep into the interior of the land.
Treat and other settlers drew up land deeds and land sales that were not honored; and more problematic, in favor of a European ideology of “manifest destiny” ― the notion that a god gave them the divine authority to expand with impunity.
“I read the deed between the Indians and whites [in what is present-day Newark]. I can see how the native folk did not understand the concept of land ownership. How can you own land? Why do you build a fence? Where do the bears and deer feed and live? That is such a ridiculous concept. It was inconceivable.”
The contrasting worldviews between the native folk and Europeans, along with the duplicitous land deeds; the violent attacks against native people; and the eventual efforts to kill indigenous populations resulted in the Lenaape fleeing to another land they occupied in the Ramapough (Ramapo) Mountains.
While half fled to the mountains, the other walked to Oklahoma and still reside there today. The division led to those who relocated to be recognized federally, while the Lenaape in New Jersey are acknowledged by the state, they still fight for federal recognition.
Growing Up Newark
DeFleece was born at St. Micheal’s hospital in Newark and stayed in the city until shortly after the 1967 uprising. Recalling fond memories of playing in a multiracial neighborhood of immigrants and African-American migrants, she smiles when speaking about the knitted community of her childhood ― one that transcended racial, ethnic and language barriers.
DeFreece remembers the stories of the Lenaape told by her uncle, Uncle Sonny, and her father (who grew up between Newark, New Jersey and the Ramapough lands). As well as, the trips on Route 17 to Mahwah and up the mountains to the grave site of her forebears, the DeFreece’s (also spelled DeFreese and DeFreez).
I asked DeFreece if she celebrates Thanksgiving, a question I think about when black people celebrate Independence Day. She said that her mother re-appropriated the day to mean a time to celebrate family and being thankful for life’s blessings.
Her mother, a Virginia migrant of Trinidadian-German-Irish mixture fared differently in a racist South in which she endured many injustices. Like many African-Americans, she moved to the northern part of the country for better opportunities.
“Being thankful” for a native person, according to DeFreece, means being alive and here to tell the stories of her people and fight against the centuries-long injustices native populations continue to endure.
For the DeFleece family, the warmth and village-like neighborhood that Newark offered, suddenly changed when the 1967 Rebellion rocked the city for almost a week.
Leaving 26 dead, hundreds injured and millions of destruction to property, Eileen DeFreece remembers vividly. Still a child, she experienced a trauma that still remains:
“At night, we were told to get down as cars drove up and down our streets shooting. I remember seeing what we now know as National Guards, shooting into the homes of people as they drove down the street,” DeFreece recollects. “My father found bullet holes in house the next day. I was a girl then and could not understand why the police would shoot into our house. From then on, we could not go out and play like we used to.”
Soon after, the DeFleece’s moved to Montclair, but Eileen insists she never left Newark. Similar to a lot of black families who were able to relocate their deep ties to the city kept them rooted. “A lot of my family were still in Newark so we came here for holidays and visited.”
Career & Beyond
Her affinity for Newark continued. Eventually, DeFleece accepted a position as a professor at Essex County College. A graduate of Rutgers University, her Ph.D. (her research in Era Bell Thompson a Chicago Renaissance writer) in English, she teaches and researches African-American literature.
Between teaching, DeFleece is also a prolific editor who once worked at Ebony and Jet Magazine. Her striking appearance graced several photo shoots, as she too modeled.
By day she instructs, while in the evening and around a demanding job, DeFreece pursues her passion as a jazz singer ― another legacy that points to Newark’s rich history of jazz.
Recently, the serious professor who immerses herself into everything from Olaudah Equiano to Toni Morrison released her debut jazz CD of classics appropriately titled, Timeless. Smiling, she says that in her second career, she will gig to flex her vocals.