To save a Revolutionary War house, Camden seeks to honor a more honest history

Preservationists in South Jersey hope to save a house that figured prominently in the Battle of Camden and other Revolutionary War skirmishes — by making it the centerpiece of a museum that also will highlight the role of Black, brown, and Indigenous people in the larger conflict.

“We have a chance to preserve the most historic building in Camden … and tell everyone’s story,” said Jack O’Byrne, executive director of the Camden County Historical Society, which has a pending long-term lease on the house.

Built in 1734 on what’s now Erie Street in North Camden, the Benjamin Cooper House was a residence, tavern, boarding home, and later, offices of the John H. Mathis & Company Ship Yard. The house is listed on national and state historic registries; it also has been designated as ”endangered” by the advocacy group Preservation New Jersey.

The British commandeered the imposing stone edifice during their nine-month occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-1778. The house overlooked a Delaware River ferry landing used by British and Hessian troops who invaded New Jersey in an effort to capture Fort Mercer, 11 miles south at Red Bank, Gloucester County, in October 1777.

“There were 75 Black and Native American soldiers at the Battle of Fort Mercer,” O’Bryne said. “These stories don’t often get told.”

The ferry landing near the Benjamin Cooper House also was used for the public sale of enslaved human beings, including children who were brought from Philadelphia to New Jersey so slavers could avoid taxes Pennsylvania levied on such transactions. And prior to the arrival of the Coopers and other Europeans in the 17th century, the land where the house still stands was part of the hunting and fishing grounds of Native American people along the Delaware.

“If there’s going to be a history museum in North Camden, we have to be honest about what our history is,” said Carmen Ubarry, who oversees family and community engagement programs for the Mastery charter schools in the neighborhood. “Camden does have a history of slavery, and we need to acknowledge that. We also need to acknowledge we are on Native American land.”

O’Byrne outlined a preliminary plan for the Benjamin Cooper House at a virtual public meeting April 10. Prepared by Clark Caton Hintz, a Trenton architectural firm specializing in historic preservation, the plan envisions restoring and transforming the long-vacant, fire-damaged structure and its later additions into the “American Revolution Museum of South Jersey.”

The museum would highlight wartime events in and around the house as well as related skirmishes and troop movements along Kings Highway in nearby towns such as Haddonfield, and the Battle of Fort Mercer as well. With space for public events, the facility also would serve patrons of the proposed Camden Waterfront Trail that will connect with the Cross Camden County trail and the Philadelphia region’s Circuit Trail system.

“We support the Cooper House being a multicultural heritage center and a tourist destination,” said Mark Franklin, who owns the house, eight acres of land, and nine acres of wetlands on the site. The museum would be an anchor for complementary developments and programs he envisions on other portions of the property, such as boat-building, he said.

“Restoring this historic tavern has been a goal of the North Camden Neighborhood Plan for over a decade,” said Jessica Franzini, executive director of CLHI, a longtime North Camden community development organization.

“I’m glad the historical society is dedicated to saving this building and partnering with the community to make it accessible and culturally significant,” she said, adding that CLHI and the historical society plan to organize walk-through tours of the site for neighborhood residents.

O’Byrne estimated the project cost at $2.5 million, including eventual acquisition of the building itself. City and county grants could be matched by the New Jersey Historic Trust Capital Preservation Program. Federal American Battlefield Land Acquisition Program funds could also help with the purchase, he said.

What is sometimes called the Battle of Camden took place on March 2, 1778, and marked “the end of British efforts to trap Gen. Anthony Wayne and capture the badly needed cattle he was driving from South Jersey to Washington’s army in Valley Forge,” said local historian Bob Shinn, a supporter of the museum project who is researching the history of the house.

The skirmish, which also involved forces led by Polish nobleman Casimir Pulaski, “was significant. It showed how dependent British incursions into New Jersey were on the protection of the heavy artillery of the British navy in the Delaware River — and how they could be driven back to Philadelphia by the joint maneuver of strong American cavalry and infantry,” said Shinn.

During the April 10 community meeting and in subsequent interviews, some attendees expressed interest in the museum plan, while others had reservations.

“The people I have spoken to want to know why they’re doing this. They tell me, ‘We don’t need a history house. We need better parks,’” said longtime North Camden resident Jackie Santiago, who attended the virtual meeting.

“I know [the organizers] are passionate about this project, but they need to go to the community and find out what the community is passionate about,” Santiago said. “We have a whole host of problems in North Camden.”

Samir Nichols, who recently moved to the neighborhood and is the founder of the city’s Superior Arts Institute, said a museum seems like a noble idea.

“But there need to be Black and brown voices at the table. Not to halt the conversation, but to continue the conversation,” he said. “We need to be at the helm of the decision-making process and the oversight process.”

Longtime North Camden resident Shirley Irizarry called the proposed museum “a great opportunity to showcase history and other things that make up the fabric” of her neighborhood and the adjacent Cramer Hill section. “We don’t want to be shut out of this [project],” she said. “We want to have ownership of it.”

North Camden after World War II saw an exodus of white residents as newcomers to the city, primarily from the southern U.S. and Puerto Rico, moved into the neighborhood. Blocks of once-solid rowhouses were demolished for urban renewal and road-building projects, such as I-676. But grassroots groups like CLHI helped to stabilize parts of North Camden.

Danielle Riley’s grandparents moved to the city from Savannah, Ga. in the 1950s. She grew up around Fifth and York in North Camden and remembers hearing stories about the Benjamin Cooper House.

“As a Camden native, and someone who is still here, Ireally think the neighborhood will support [the museum],” Riley said. “But it should be relatable to the people here, the people who persevered.”

Preservationists said saving the Benjamin Cooper House became more urgent after the Hugg-Harrison House, a Revolutionary War landmark in Bellmawr, was bulldozed in 2017. And they said the Camden museum could draw heritage tourist dollars to South Jersey as the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States approaches in 2026.

“We swore we will never let what happened to the Hugg house happen again,” said O’Byrne. “With the Benjamin Cooper House, we have a chance to do something unique for the city, South Jersey, and the region.”