Older parents would sometimes tell stories of life on Sourland Mountain, where many people worked in the peach orchards that thrived there in the late 1800s. But even as adults, they said, they haven’t given much thought to the older stones near the center of Stoutsburg cemetery.
“We just buried people there and then went about our business,” Ms. Mills said.
In 2006, Ms Buck, whose husband is the cemetery president, received a call from an older white man in a nearby town. His neighbor was planning to build a driveway through what he believed to be an unmarked African-American cemetery, and he wanted help to stop it.
“The more he talked to us, the crazier we got,” recalls Ms. Buck.
She and Ms Mills found themselves hiring an archaeologist and delving into 19th-century wills – and contacting the local press and the state attorney general. The owner abandoned his plans.
“But it got us thinking, we had better go to our own cemetery and see who we buried there,” Ms Buck said. “And it snowballed through the book.”
In the 19th century, Sourland Mountain – named, some say, for the poor quality of its soil – had the reputation of being an isolated place, difficult to nibble on, even dangerous. And its black colonies did not go unnoticed by white chroniclers, who sometimes peddled exaggerated stories. In 1883, a white physician and local historian published an oral biography of Sylvia Dubois, a former slave who ran a hectic tavern on the mountain (and who is said to have lived to be 115 years old).
A few years earlier, in 1880, a New York Times correspondent had come. He was there to cover a sensational murder trial, but ended up tabling a lengthy dispatch under the resounding headline “A REMARKABLE COLONY OF BARBARIANS IN THE MIDDLE OF CIVILIZATION”.