The City of Paterson, New Jersey recently unveiled a monument built to pay tribute to the courageous acts of Josiah Huntoon and William Van Rensalier. These two men, one white (Huntoon) and the other of African descent (Van Rensalier) worked together as part of the Underground Railroad network to aid enslaved Africans escape to Canada. They operated a facility in the City of Paterson that served as the Excelsior Coffee and Spice Factory during the day and a safe house at night. Both were ardent abolitionists who risked their lives to help others find freedom and they serve as shining examples about what we can do when people work together with a common goal and purpose and transcend all racial barriers.
Josiah Huntoon was one of the wealthiest men in the City of Paterson and was the owner of the Excelsior Coffee and Spice Factory. He was born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1813 and made his transition in 1891. His home was on the grounds of what is presently Passaic County Community College. The City of Paterson demolished Josiah Hutton’s home and factory in the 1980’s before the facility’s historical significance was recognized.
William Van Rensalier was born in 1836 in Spring Valley, NY to free Blacks. Josiah Huntoon served as his mentor and paid for his education in Canada. Van Rensalier worked with Josiah Huntoon at his business and in his safe house. Later in life, William would become the City of Paterson’s first African-American engineer.
The Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Monument is in the City of Paterson, New Jersey at the intersection of Broadway and Memorial Drive. Acclaimed African-American sculptor and architect Ed Dwight designed the monument. The sculpture consists of Josiah Huntoon and William Van Rensalier standing as fugitive enslaved Africans move towards them. In addition, there is a legacy path that consists of bricks from a fundraising campaign inscribed with the names of donors.
The Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Foundation, founded in 2003, raised the funds necessary to build the monument. The total cost of the memorial was $335,000. $210,000.00 was for the design and construction of the monument and an extra $125,000 for the landscaping and design of the lot. Ultimately, the Paterson Parking Authority contributed $100,000, the Passaic County Freeholders contributed $171,000 and the Foundation raised the rest via their brick campaign. One of the primary members of the foundation was Dolores Van Rensalier, great grand-daughter of William Van Rensalier, whose search for her identity and lineage led her to Paterson in 1984. There she learned that William Van Rensalier was her great grand-father, learned about his incredible achievements and learned that she was an African-American and not Caucasian. She committed herself to the monument’s construction to make sure that her great grand-father’s legacy and achievements would be remembered forever and wanted it to also serve as a shining example of Blacks and Whites working together for justice.
You can learn more about her life by reading this book about her journey that culminated in the monument’s creation:
Please visit the links below to learn more about the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Monument and its history:
Plans for a Monument at Paterson’s Underground Railroad station
The Underground Railroad in Paterson, New Jersey
via San Diego Voice and Viewpoint