By Jesse Stiller
Nation & World Editor
As the controversy simmers over the William Green House, most students are still unsure of the building’s historical background. New information is being uncovered as the excavation continues.
The house, listed on the New Jersey Endangered Site list, is considered to be one of the oldest living structures in New Jersey and is on the United States’ Department of the Interior’s Historic Places list as the “Green-Reading House.”
Archaeology professor George Leader led a dig in 2015 with his class to discover more information about the site, and discovered the genealogy of the owners as well as the uses of the house during the time. This was the third dig of the site, following two previous excavations in 1989 and 1995.
The findings were published in an article titled “The First Excavations of the Colonial William Green House” by Leader and Jason Hammer from the College, which went into depth about the historical purpose and uses of the building.
According to the article, the building was thought to have been built around 1720 after being bought by William Green I, who migrated from Philadelphia to Ewing. The house also allegedly went through two additions, one between 1750 and 1790 and another after 1830.
The farm was also reportedly used as a billet for Washington’s troops during the battle of Trenton during the winter of 1776-77, though it is unlikely troops were ever stationed at the house.
It was suggested that Green III had actually served in the Revolutionary War with his father, but no evidence of such a claim has surfaced. In addition, it was alleged that the frequent movement of cavalry may have left behind evidence of Washington’s light horses and potentially British activity at the plantation.
The home continued to run in the hands of the Green family for generations until 1879, when they lost it to Lydia Ann Moore after the Greens failed an investment into a peach crop business, ending a 150-year long ownership of the farm in the family.
The house was then sold to A. Jewell Blackwell, according to the published article, who modernized the farmhouse and demolished the smokehouse and windmill before being sold to an employee of the College, former football coach Robert Salois, before being sold to the state of New Jersey and subsequently by The College of New Jersey, formerly Trenton State College at the time.
Carolyn Metz, an archaeology professor at the College, conducted the two digs in 1989 and 1995 which collected and cataloged over 2,000 artifacts, but were never publicly released for review, with some of the artifacts coming from a barn and a machine shed that were no longer standing.
In the spring 2015 semester, Professor Leader led his class in a class project that allowed students to dig for artifacts and continue to discover artifacts that may be of significant interest. The archaeology students dug numerous holes on the north, south and east sides of the building, using Metz’s gridding system used in the first two digs.
Students found numerous artifacts made of ceramic, metal and stone, according to the article. In one case, students found numerous clay tobacco pipes as well as an 1862 Indian Head penny and a bone fragment of unknown origin. Some students also found coal and glass material, which could have dated back to the pre-colonial and colonial times.
Earlier this school year, junior history and anthropology double major Erin Meyer, and senior urban education and sociology dual major Sophie Hayda were part of a group that were set to explore not only the rest of the area outside of the building, but the basement below it.
“Archaeology is on a day-by-day basis,” Meyer said regarding the Willing Green excavation effort. “We want to dig as low as possible.”
The group had set its sights for going into the building for the first time to explore many areas of the basement and a newfound crawlspace, but were unable to do so because of issues with equipment and the need for more funding.
“On the first day of digging, the generator broke and shut off all the floodlights we were using, and we were left in the dark,” Meyer said.
Meyer also said that the William Green Plantation Committee need more funding for asbestos testing and removing lead paint off the wall and other areas, and also added that because of issues with the generator, as well as the age of the building’s first and second floors and hazards that the house currently posed, the group is strictly limited to the south and east yards of the buildings for their dig.
“The interior is not an option right now,” Meyer said. “We’re restricted to outside.”
Meyer said that the excavation was looking for the original outhouse, smokehouse and even a spring that once resided on the property, but worries that the original foundations of the main barn are under Townhouses South and that the outhouse and other artifacts may be buried under the road.
In addition, the spring’s foundations were determined to be on the south side of the house, but had been buried in the forest that separates the house from other areas of campus, such as Townhouses West. The group still remains optimistic about finding these areas and excavating them in the future.
“Until you stick a shovel in the ground, you don’t really know what’s there,” Meyer said.
Over the summer, a petition circulated online calling for the building to be demolished completely, with the organizer, Caitlyne Gomez, a Junior Nursing major, saying the building was a “constant reminder of the atrocities of slavery” on campus. In addition, Gomez also advocated for Green Hall Lawn to be renamed. At this point, it was unclear to Gomez and other students that Green Hall was named after James M. Green, the principal of the Normal School from 1889 to 1917.
“There was an email sent out by President Foster in June that briefly mentioned that it was a plantation at one point,” Gomez said. “And I was really disappointed that it existed.”
Gomez said that, when the petition was initially posted and spread around social media, it received numerous retweets, and many signers were expressing similar viewpoints about the building.
“Our knee-jerk reactions were that we were scared because we put a lot of time into our project,” Meyer said regarding the petition. “We know the building, but most of the community doesn’t know the significance of it.”
Meyer began reaching out to friends trying to share information about the house for them to better understand the significance of the building. She also reached out to Leader about the petition, who was already working with the committee to draft an email to talk to students about the project and argue for its importance.
Later, the author of the petition reached out to her to discuss the building itself.
“Caitlyne reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, people are pointing me in this direction about the building and how it would be a better way to … teach people about the enslaved by not tearing the building down,’” Meyer said.
“I actually had a meeting with George Leader from the Plantation Committee,” Gomez said. “I sat in one of their meetings where they weren’t necessarily trying to persuade me, but rather just trying to get me educated about the history of the building.”
Gomez, who was not aware of the archaeological dig at the time, has changed her views on the building, now calling for it to be preserved and instead set up as either a community center or museum.
“I think it can be used to educate the community about not just slavery in general, but in New Jersey and the surrounding area,” Gomez said.
College President Kathryn Foster said in an interview with The Signal that she had conversations with the researchers about the house and what the future of it may look like.
“What the team of researchers said is that they thought that when they have a little bit more, they thought it could be turned into a learning center,” Foster said. “We had talked about having seminar rooms named for maybe that first indentured servant, have some classes take place there, be able to fix it up … as a learning space, maybe with some displays. I think that’s great.”
Meyer said that she and Gomez had a long conversation about the history of the building, which included sharing previous works and other research about the building. The conversation then led to a zoom call with the committee, Student Government, Gomez and other interested student organization presidents.
“We had an hour-long conversation about what’s next for our research and how we can educate people,” Meyer said.
“After Erin and Caitlyne had the conversations, (Gomez) edited the petition herself to say that the building shouldn’t be knocked down, but people were still signing it,” Hayda said.
Hayda also said that although people were not aware of the significance of the structure, everyone now wants to know about it and that it would be a great tool to teach about slavery not just in the United States, but also in New Jersey.
“At first when I tried to talk to my roommates about the significance of the building, they dismissed it,” Hayda said. “Now everyone wants to know about it and we can teach about slavery in New Jersey.”
With the large amount of history behind the building, as well as the renewed interest into the archaeological aspect of discovering its history, the College’s Anthropology Society released a statement on Instagram explaining newfound evidence of enslavement ties to the family.
“While primary documents have confirmed the ownership of enslaved people from other members of the Green family, there is no explicit evidence that there were enslaved people at the house that now sits on the TCNJ campus,” the statement read.
In addition, the group argued that further research and digs of the site would shed light on the “history of underprivileged people who aren’t included in the history books,” which included enslaved people, women and children. The group added that the information had only been uncovered a semester ago.
“Destruction of the site would bring further research of slavery at TCNJ and Trenton to a standstill,” the group concluded.
“The protection of this history is an opportunity to tell the stories of those who have been marginalized and forgotten,” the group concluded.
George Leader, who is the head reacher on the project regarding the William Green House, told The Signal in July that it was still not clear whether any enslaved people resided at the house at any point in time, but branches of the family did own slaves around the area, and at least one indentured servant was evident.
“What can be said at the moment is that in 1815 at least one Black indentured servant, Eliza Reasoner, was working for the owner of the house…Another document from William Green III’s wife, Phoebe, lists a Black indentured servant named Prime Gibson,” Leader wrote.
Leader noted that, while the distinction was “complex,” it was “important” because indentured servants were not lifelong, and had more rights than enslaved people. Leader closed out the letter by stating the intentions of the project remained the same.
“There is a long way to go.” Leader wrote. “Hundreds of pages of historical records are still waiting to be read and there will be more discoveries yet to come.”
In August, Foster briefly touched on the Green Plantation’s current status and future plans for the building in a Q&A with The Signal, where Foster announced discoveries regarding the research of the building in a “Corona-Missive” over the summer.
“I did, and I think some students took it as, like, that there was something that was hidden,” Foster told The Signal. “To the contrary. This is an ongoing research project. It’s been going on for several years, and this was a new discovery.”
In regards to future plans of the building, there has been some discussion about turning the former site into a learning center.
“We had talked about having seminar rooms named for maybe that first indentured servant, have some classes take place there, be able to fix it up … as a learning space, maybe with some displays,” Foster said. “I think that’s great.”
The faculty, especially those involved with the William Green Plantation Committee, applaud the students for standing up to social justice, all the while insisting that the archaeological work continue.
“Our task is urgent and imperative, and we don’t take it lightly,” the email concluded, adding that it hopes to share the work and discoveries with students, faculty and the larger community.
Meyer stated that the uptick in interest had led to the departments of African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, the English department and other clubs to become intrigued and offer assistance in their project. She also stated that most of the students currently in the project are Anthropology majors and history majors, but she hopes the recent uptick will drive more people to become involved, especially freshmen and sophomores.
“It’s all research and it’s a topic I’ve fallen in love with.” Meyer said. “I want to use my passion for this to bring others on the project and I know they will have an equal passion for it.”