Walking Through History: Westfield’s African American Walking Tour

The walking tour, established in October 2020, was created by the African American History Committee of Westfield 300, a committee of Westfield citizens that spearheaded the celebrations of Westfield’s 300th anniversary. The tour consists of 14 sites spread out throughout Westfield with each spot signifying important contributions African Americans have made to Westfield. 

We had the opportunity to walk the tour ourselves and speak to two WHS seniors,  Cynthia Li and Ashley Talwar, who helped design and research the official tour brochure. Li and Talwar had learned about the tour project from WHS history teacher Gregory Bowers. 

As for the impact the African American tour has on the future of the WHS history department, Bowers said “I’m hoping to incorporate that material in this year and eventually maybe take a field trip where we can kind of go out into the community.”

Burial Grounds by Presbyterian Church

Site #1: Burial Grounds by Presbyterian Church

When ground was broken on the graveyard in 1720, there were no restrictions on who could be buried there, despite the contemporary norm of segregated graveyards. Although there are no markers to identify the African American burial areas, residents have confirmed their ancestors’ grave sites. 

Site #2: Slave Auction Site 

Although the exact location is unknown,  what is now Lincoln Plaza was the likely location of a slave auction site in the 18th and early 19th century. There were often advertisements for slaves in the newspaper and the slaves were openly sold in the streets. 

Bethel Baptist Church

Site #3: Bethel Baptist Church 

Established in 1889 as the New York Avenue Baptist Church, the Bethel Baptist Church adopted its current name in 1913. Former Reverend Miles Austin was one of the original founders of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Westfield.  

Robeson Memorial Park

Site #4: Robeson Memorial Park 

The Robeson Memorial Park was dedicated to Paul Robeson and his family on July 10, 2007, about 34 years after his death. Robeson, an actor, singer, and activist, lived in Westfield from 1907-1910 and the park is in the location of his former family home. 

Site #5: Zora Neale Hurston Residence 

Zora Neale Hurston, famously known for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, (a book in WHS’ curriculum) and as a contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, lived on South Ave. circa 1930. Hurston and famous author Langston Hughes collaborated on the play Mule Bone during their residency in Westfield. The play finally made its Broadway debut in 1991. 

Plinton Funeral Home

Site #6: Plinton Funeral Home 

The Plinton Funeral Home was established in 1949 by W. Hollis Plinton, who was the first Black president of the New Jersey Funeral Directors Association. He was also an engaged citizen of the community as a member of the Bethel Baptist Church and Board of Directors of the Westfield Community Center. As chairman of the Housing Committee at the Centennial Lodge, he built houses on Windsor Avenue for Black WWII Veterans. After his death, it continued to be managed by his widow, Eva Holmes Plinton.

Elks Centennial Lodge

Site #7: Elks Centennial Lodge 400 

This lodge on West Broad Street was organized in 1923 as a community organization for African-American men in Westfield. In 1952, the Centennial Lodge sponsored a development of affordable housing for African American WWII veterans. 

Site # 8: Westfield Community Center

The Westfield Community Center began as a toy lending library, but soon offered recreational programs and work opportunities for young people in the area. The center moved to its present location from 464 West Broad St in 1941, and has hosted several notable visitors, including Baseball Legend Jackie Robinson, Tennis Champion Althea Gibson and Olympian Jesse Owens. 

Site #9: Langston Hughes Residence 

Located at 521 Downer St, this was the home of the famous poet, novelist, playwright and social activist, Langston Hughes. He lived in the house circa 1930, and lived here while working with Zora Neale Hurston on the play Mule Bone.

St. Luke’s AME Zion Church

Site #10: St Luke’s AME Zion Church 

​​St. Luke’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church was established in Westfield in 1853, originally for Quakers. In 1907, the current church was built on Downer Street, and the current pastor is Rev. William E. Lawson.. Paul Robeson was a member of this church. 

Site #11: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument 

This memorial was unveiled by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Westfield on June 19, 2005. A plaque now sits next to the South Avenue circle and is the starting location of the annual MLK Day service every January.

Site #12: Westfield Neighborhood Council 

The WNC is a private, nonprofit organization that was formed as a grassroots movement by the women of the neighborhood in response to the terrible living conditions of the Black families in town. In February 1967, the women presented their concerns to the town council, which sent trucks to clean up soon after. The WNC has now expanded to include preschool, after-school care and summer programs for teens and senior citizens.

Site #13: Gideon Ross Estate 

This house contained slave quarters until as late as the 1920s. According to tax records, there were approximately nineteen slaves in town in the 1830s. By 1840, there were four slaves and by 1850, only one slave remained in town.

Site #14: Fairview Cemetery 

Opened in 1868, the Fairview Cemetery on East Broad Street was established for more burial space. It was an unsegregated burial site of Civil War soldiers. Listed below are the names of the African American Civil War soldiers and the locations of their graves:

  • John Brinkerhoff, died 1911, Lot 2
  • Milton A. Brown, died 1911, Lot 147
  • Edmund D. Chamberlain, died 1891, Lot 68
  • George L. Holland, died 1909, Lot 2
  • James H. White, died 1929, Lot unknown

Black Professional Zone 

The Black Professional Zone is the name designated to the area in downtown where many Black-owned businesses were established in Westfield. Many of these businesses were dentist and doctors offices.