The remains of three slaves—known only as Tom, Dan and John—get a proper burial two centuries after their deaths.
By Michelle Caffrey C’10
While plenty of families have the proverbial skeleton in the closet, the ones in Robert Drew Simpson’s life were hardly metaphorical.
Last spring, Simpson C’45, T’48,’54, the eighth-generation grandson of Henry Simpson Sr., a slave-owning farmer, put the bones of three of his ancestor’s slaves to rest. A retired Methodist minister and trustee emeritus, Simpson found a plot for them in a historically African-American cemetery in Newton, N.J., and had their names and the epitaph “We are all brothers” carved into their first headstone. His son, David, built them a small wooden casket.
“I learned over the years we have to be forthright in looking at other people as human beings,” says Simpson. “Slavery was not that, and this fits with my Christian view [that] we are all one people. I wanted to get that on stone.”
Simpson discovered the remains some 30 years ago when a bulldozer doing construction on family land in Vernon, N.J., unearthed the slaves’ makeshift graves. Around the same time, Simpson, an accomplished genealogist, had found his ancestor’s 1775 will, where, tucked between lists of livestock and female slaves listed only as “wenches,” he found the names Tom, Dan and John.
Though Simpson doesn’t recall the particulars, the bones found their way to Space Farms Zoo and Museum in Sussex, N.J. A staffer there had them analyzed by the American Museum of Natural History, confirming that the bones were from three males: Dan towered over 6 feet tall, Tom was smaller, John was only a child.
Since then, the bones sat on the shelves at Space Farms undisturbed, until Simpson and his wife, retired professor of English Megan Demarest C’46, G’80, got to wondering about them last year and set a burial into motion. For Simpson, the timing was perfect. “This declares a closure on an inhuman part of the past and at the same time opens a new chapter, with the first African-American president living in the White House.”