Friends of James Howe House Fear Losing Opportunity to Preserve Montclair History

James Howe House

Montclair, NJ – The push to protect a piece of Montclair’s history has become more precarious. Friends of the Howe House learned before Thanksgiving that an offer was made on the James Howe House.

“We then moved quickly to make a counter offer with a clause that promised $2000 more (up to a purchase price of $400,000) more than any other offer,” Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael, member of the Friends of Howe House said Wednesday. The home, at 369 Claremont Avenue, is
listed for sale for $379,000.

Rev. Sammler-Michael says the group also sent a letter explaining why Montclair would benefit from having the home developed as a historic entity. She says owner Bob Van Dyke refused to speak to the group, instead directing them to his lawyer.

“We just learned that the other offer is now in attorney review. There is a good chance that we will lose this opportunity to preserve the Freed Slave House in Montclair,” Rev. Sammler-Michael says. The group is meeting today to explore what else they can do to preserve the home.

The James Howe House, also known as the “Freed Slave House” is one of the oldest homes standing in Montclair since 1780 and is one of Montclair’s most important pieces of history.

The Friends of Howe Houses had mobilized quickly when they learned that the property was for sale with a specific call to attract investors.

James Howe was the first African American to own property in Montclair. The home, located at 369 Claremont Avenue, has operated as a rental property for years. It has local landmark status, but Friends of the Howe House want to see its future protected.

At an October rally, supporters included representation from the Montclair NAACP, Montclair African American Heritage Foundation, Montclair Mutual Aid, longtime 4th Ward councilor Dr. Renee Baskerville and Montclair History Center.

Rally in October to save Howe House.

Local historian and Friends of Howe House member Frank Gerard Godlewski says the group has also been working with the State of NJ Department of Environmental Protection Office for State and National Historic Register listings. According to Godlewski, the property and its history make it eligible for grants to advance ongoing preservation activities for historic places; he cites the African American Cultural Action Fund of the National Trust as a possible source to support the preservation project.

1856 map of Montclair (West Bloomfield) that identifies the James Howe property.

“The preservation of the James Howe house would be a catalyst for further positive action to benefit other historic projects for the community,” says Godlewski. “Researching the James Howe House/Freed Slave house brings to light hidden histories.”

Nathaniel Crane’s 1831 last will and testament stating James How(e) was formally enslaved and manumitted.

Godlewski, who has been involved in researching the property’s history for years, says a Newark Evening News article from 1933 calls the Freed Slave House one of the few remaining landmarks in the state, monuments to the American era of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Philip Doremus in “The Reminiscences of Montclair” notes that in 1831 Nathanial Crane, one of the descendants of Montclair’s founding family, provided for James Howe, bequeathing him a house, property and $500. James Howe’s son lived with the Doremus family and worked with them.

Janice Cross–Gilyard, president of the Afro American History and Genealogical society, is exploring whether James Howe may have also been a blood relative of the Cranes. Cross–Gilyard is doing a study on Crane and Howe genealogy and has also discovered she has a DNA match to both the Cranes and the Howes.

Adding to the James Howe House’s historical significance is its connection to the Underground Railroad along with other locations in the area.

“Since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, our whole country is supposed to be woke, but the town of Montclair is asleep,” said Dionne Ford, when the Friends of Howe House formed as a group in October. “One of the oldest homes in the township owned by a freed enslaved man should undoubtedly be preserved but instead, it is now on the market.”

The clock is ticking on saving the James Howe House. Will Montclair wake up in time?

This is a developing story. We’ve reached out to Van Dyk’s attorney and will update with any comment.

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  1. Not really sure what the goal is here. There is no indication there are funds to run this as a historic site. It’s way too small to be a museum. Time/energy could be spent getting it historically listed locally so that exterior changes have to be approved by the board. That’s about the best you can hope for. The interior seems to have been lost to a gut job. Wonder where the money raised goes when this is purchased by someone else?

  2. I would love to support this concept; historic preservation should be front and center in this town. But as an advisor to non-profits for more than thirty years, one look at the website for Friends of the Howe House sets off alarm bells.

    It states, “Friends of the Howe House is a fiscally sponsored project of a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit in Montclair, NJ. All donations are 100% tax deductible and will receive a tax receipt.” All of the links on the site lead to nice statements about the cause, but nothing concrete. If we want this to work, we need to take a closer look at some issues:

    1. It does not state the name of the sponsoring organization. Why not? There should be links to that sponsor. Non-disclosure of a fiduciary relationship is highly unorthodox for non-profits. In fact, it is the prominence and trustworthiness of the sponsor that gives the sponsored project credibility. People will inevitably ask, is there a reason to hide it?

    2. There is no description of any actual project. Purchasing a property is not a plan.

    3. Is there a budget? Is there a budget for the sponsoring organization? At least please provide a link to the sponsoring organization’s 990.

    4. As montclairskier suggests above, if the activists fail to purchase the property, where does my contribution go? The answer is, unless they return my gift to me, it disappears, possibly into the sponsoring organization’s general fund. There are worse case scenarios as well. Why would I write a check to that?

    5. There have been far too many examples of such fraud in recent uses of 501(c)(3) status lately for me to open my wallet uncritically.

    6. Mr. Yacobellis, in a separate media report, implies that any purchase of the property would possibly entangle the transaction in either litigation or encumbering legislation. Why would I want my contribution to even possibly go to such undesirable outcomes? And any time a politician gets involved, many of us walk away. Maybe Mr. Yacobellis can reconsider his involvement and how it might sour potential “preservation investors,” i.e. contributors.

    7. This is a fundraising effort. How much has been raised? Is there a bank account? Are there any major grant applications in the works (to whom? when?). Are any major donors lined up, or discussing gifts, or maybe talking about matching gifts? Montclair is a wealthy town, there are lots of people able to write big checks. Why make it hard for them?

    8. My bottom line for all my charities: if I don’t see a 990, I don’t write a check. Someone has to have a 990 if you’re promising a tax-exemption for my gift.

    This is not to derail the “project” (although, again, it’s not at all clear what the project is). But its advocates are sounding alarms about lost opportunities and emergency needs. (Mr. Rubacky separately states that this single preservation issue has been around for more than thirty years and nothing in the way of formal preservation has occurred, which in itself bears some consideration). If this really is an emergency, I would hope those in charge would address some of these concerns. It would be a shame to have activists gather on Claremont Avenue a few months from now lamenting that nothing was done, and pointing fingers, when the opportunity to get it right is right here, right now.

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