Paterson’s Underground Railroad Site Gets A Bell

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The Liberty Bell, a civil war era bell, being unveiled at the site.

By Voice & Viewpoint Staff

For Mrs. Dolores Van Rensalier-Warren, Tuesday, October 19, 2021 was more than the occasion for the dedication of a Freedom Bell, it was the ultimate addition to the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Monument in Paterson, New Jersey. The presence of the area Congressman, Bill Pascrell, Jr., made the occasion even more memorable. Pasrell was Patterson’s mayor in 1994 when the battle to save the present day location from sale as a vacant lot to a fast food chain first ignited the city.

This site had been the home of the Paterson, New Jersey Underground Railroad secretly by night. By day, it was the home of Josiah Huntoon, spice merchant and abolitionist, and his friend William P. Van Rensalier. These two men risked their lives to operate this underground railroad station by night as a part of a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early-to-mid 19th century. William P. Van Rensalier was a freed Black man and engineer by day who lived and worked with his friend Josiah. The underground railroad was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada. This particular route had been used by Frederick Douglass, who was housed there on one of his trips north. These escape routes for slaves operated between 1800 and 1865.

Dolores Van Rensalier-Warren, who discovered as a teenager that she was half Black, left home at the age of 17 in search of her Black roots. The journey led her to Paterson, New Jersey where she discovered that William P. Van Resensalier was her maternal great grandfather. He was her mother’s grandfather.

During her years of extensive research, leading to her discovery, she not only documented her biracial ancestry (50.6% white and 44.3% Black), but also discovered her hidden Black great grandfather William P. Van Rensalier had a rich legacy as part of the underground railroad. In 2004 she became the founder and President of the non-profit Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Foundation. Her leadership steered the Foundation’s board to help build the prestigious Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Monument, which sits at the corner of Bridge Street and Broadway in Paterson, NJ.

Completed in 2014, the site features over 181 personalized bricks from across the nation and now has a rare 1871 Historic Bell. In 2017, Dolores published her book, “Bridge Street to Freedom”, which documents both the history of Josiah Huntoon and William P. Van Rensalier as well as their unique friendship and their underground railroad station. Much of the proceeds from the book were donated to the Passaic Community College which stands directly across the street from the historic site, and also houses so much of the history of both the site and the Monument, which has grown to be one of Paterson’s most significant historic locations. The presence of the Freedom Bell only adds to the historic significance of both the Bell and the monument.

The Freedom Bell was cast by the Meadley Bell Company of Troy, New York in 1871 and has been a fixture of the Paterson landscape for 150 years. It had remained at the Great Falls from the time of its 1976 listing on the National Registry of Historic places. In August of 2019, the United States of America commemorated the 400th Anniversary of the first slaves coming to America with a National Bell Ringing; being consistent with Dr. Martin Luther Kings, Jr. ‘s 1963 speech in which he said, “Let Freedom Ring….” The Proclamation of the City of Paterson, New Jersey established October 19th as “Freedom Day”, stating that the The Freedom Bell symbolizes the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

Besides the Congressman and the mayors of both Paterson and Passaic, members of the New Jersey State Assembly, City Councils of both cities, New Jersey State Senate, County Commissioners and the Director of the Historic Preservation Commission, all added to the dignitaries present last Tuesday and the honor accorded to the site itself.

Mrs. Van Rensalier-Warren, resides in San Diego, California with her husband, Dr. John E. Warren and daughter, Latanya West, where she is currently writing her next book, “Hidden Roots: A Biracial Memoir.

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