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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.