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Upper Saddle River Pastor Resurrects Historic ‘Slave Cemetery’

The Rev. Robert Fretz in the Hopper African American Cemetery in Upper Saddle River.
The Rev. Robert Fretz in the Hopper African American Cemetery in Upper Saddle River. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
An historic marker in the so-called "Slave Cemetery" names a few people known to be buried there, including John Thompson, S.F.T., Sam, and Gin. Not everyone in the cemetery died as a slave.
An historic marker in the so-called "Slave Cemetery" names a few people known to be buried there, including John Thompson, S.F.T., Sam, and Gin. Not everyone in the cemetery died as a slave. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Native stones, each affixed with an aluminum medallion, were placed on identified gravesites.
Native stones, each affixed with an aluminum medallion, were placed on identified gravesites. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Some medallions bear the seal of the Old Stone Church.
Some medallions bear the seal of the Old Stone Church. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Some medallions bear the seal of Rutgers University, which helped in the restoration.
Some medallions bear the seal of Rutgers University, which helped in the restoration. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
An overview of the Hopper African American Cemetery in Upper Saddle River. It is also known as the "Slave Cemetery."
An overview of the Hopper African American Cemetery in Upper Saddle River. It is also known as the "Slave Cemetery." Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
The Rev. Robert Fretz has overseen and orchestrated efforts to restore and respect the Hopper African American Cemetery and the contributions of African Americans in Bergen County history.
The Rev. Robert Fretz has overseen and orchestrated efforts to restore and respect the Hopper African American Cemetery and the contributions of African Americans in Bergen County history. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

UPPER SADDLE RIVER, N.J. — The Rev. Robert Fretz wants the Saddle River Valley to remember some of those who helped build its prosperity.

Particularly, African Americans buried in Upper Saddle River.

What’s called the Hopper African American Cemetery, situated on land now owned by the Upper Saddle River Historical Society, previously was on private land.

It was deeded from one owner to the next for centuries.

Fretz is pastor at the nearby Old Stone Church , which started in 1784.

That’s why he has become a steward of what is also called the “Slave Cemetery,” where a major restoration recently has been completed.

He will talk about the seven-year project — and the contributions of African Americans to the area — at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Upper Saddle River Library.

“There are no dates on the stones and they’re not inscribed,” Fretz told Daily Voice.

“We know that the plots are there but we don’t have names associated with them.”

Creating a cleared, kempt, fenced area with gravestones, each bearing an aluminum medallion, was a huge feat.

When Fretz first saw the cemetery, there were so few grave markers that the terrain looked flat. Downed branches and brush were strewn about.

It took major effort and many people to pull off the restoration.

They included Rutgers Geology Professor Alexander Gates, who in 2010 brought two things to the site: one of his classes and a ground penetrating radar system.

“They proceeded to locate approximately 40 gravesites,” Fretz said.

Stones from the bed of the East Saddle River – and others from the church sanctuary – were collected by Boy Scouts and became grave markers.

Each stone was marked with an aluminum medallion made by Triangle Manufacturing, Fretz said.

The stones found at the river have a Rutgers medallion attached.

Those from the church bear a medallion with the church seal.

“A number of people buried there worked on the building of the church,” the pastor said. “So we thought that would be a good thing to do.”

A storm in Spring 2011, followed by Hurricane Irene that summer, set the project back.

But Upper Saddle River Eagle Scout Daniel Hynes, and many others, brought it up to speed in recent years.

Some of those buried in the Hopper African American Cemetery died as slaves, Fretz said. Others died as free people.

About a quarter of the Bergen County population was African American from the time of the colonies to circa 1810, according to Fretz. Most were enslaved.

As children grow up in the Saddle River Valley now, Fretz said, it’s easy for them to get a skewed sense of the world.

“They can look around,” he said, “and they can think, How successful we all are. It must have always been like this .”

A history project like the restoration of the Hopper African American Cemetery can right that perception.

To Pastor Fretz, that’s well worth all the effort.

His Jan. 24 talk is presented under the auspices of the Upper Saddle River Historical Society .

For more information, call Kay Yeomans at 201-327-2236.

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