Biography by Linda Caldwell Epps
I was born around the year 1723 in what is now known as Ghana. I survived the journey to the New World from Africa and was sold to the Coe family in Newark, New Jersey. I was allowed to retain my Akan name and became a trusted and respected member of the Coe household. In 1777, the new Continental Congress called for a draft. My master, Benjamin Coe IV, was too old to serve and sent me in his place instead. I fought in the battles of Monmouth, Elizabethtown Point, Germantown, and Yorktown. As a result of my service, Mr. Coe granted me my freedom and bought me ten acres of land in Newark. I used this land to garden and started my own business, which earned me a respectable reputation among my peers and wealthy customers alike. I was buried in Newark in 1823 and left behind a large family and a strong legacy as Newark’s first black businessman.
Learn More About Jack Cudjo Banquante
I am a product of the trans Atlantic slave trade, descended from royalty, and sold from my native land known to you as Ghana to become enslaved in New Jersey. I was one of the survivors of the Middle Passage,which was the journey from Africa to the western hemisphere. I remember well the march from my tribal homeland to the coast, my imprisonment in shackles in the large castle, the long voyage over the great waters, my arrival to the islands of the Caribbean, and my introduction to the family that would own me in Newark, NJ. I believe I was born around the year of 1723.
As a young man I was purchased by the distinguished and wealthy Coe family of Newark. I was not forced to adopt the name of my master and kept my name as Cudjo Banquante. Cudjo is an Akan name given to a boy born on Monday and can be used as a first or last name. Banquante is a Ghanian name of royal heritage and I insisted on retaining my name, often passing on the information about my heritage to my family and all who would listen.
Unfortunately information about how I arrived in New Jersey is sketchy. I quickly became acclimated to my new home and was able to adapt and survive the horrors of my transport. Even my owner, Benjamin Coe IV, quickly saw my worth and I became on of the highly valued enslaved members of that family. My ability to make build and repair sturdy items earned me a respectable and trustworthy status in my new home.
Yes, I missed my family. I missed my home. However, I understood that the place I called home no longer existed the same way it did from my childhood. Wars and the arrival of the white man, seeking the natural resources of Africa and strong men like me to barter disrupted life in Ghana as I knew it. I realized I had to adjust and make this land called Newark my home.
There was much talk about the British, their taxes, and domination over the men who ruled this place called New Jersey. My owner, Mr. Coe and other powerful men of this area held discussions about what to do. Even during our services at First Presbyterian Church in Newark, there was talk of freedom and liberty. I listened closely to the sermons. I have always been a man of faith and the arduous journey from my homeland and all its horrors did not erase my faith in a God. This new God I was introduced to in my new home became my God and I tried to live my life in a way that would please both this God and the gods of my homeland.
The talk of fighting for liberty and freedom became louder and louder until, for the second time in my life, I am a witness and participant in a war. As the British, under the leadership of General Cornwallis’ army, invaded Newark, my master and his family would flee from Newark and live in Hanover, NJ where they stayed until the end of the war. For a while, I stayed behind in Newark and took care of the Coe property. I did my best to preserve the Coe property but at the end of the war the damage was substantial: the cost of destruction by the British amounted to 337 pounds, 14 shillings, 4 pence. My master, thought to have given shelter to General Washington, had his home burned down by the British as punishment.
In 1777, the newly formed Congress passed a law for every state to provide support t to achieve independence from the British. Benjamin Coe was too old for service and he provided as a substitute, his slave, me. For my service I was given my freedom and, Mr Coe V, son of my master, purchased for me ten acres of land at the corner of Mercer and High (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) in 1791 In. 1784, an act of New Jersey legislature made it so most enslaved men who fought during the war for independence were given their freedom.
I was part of many battles during the war. I did my best for the cause of freedom for all men. I was part of the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and fought in the battle of Elizabeth-town Point in that same year and again in 1781. I served in the Essex and Morris militias and was part of the Battle of Germantown. I was with General Washington during that terrible winter of 1777 in Valley Forge and also served with General Sullivan at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.
I was pleased that the promise of freedom was kept and happy to have been granted land as my reward for serving for my master in the war. With my land, I was able to do what I do best: making wonderful things grow from the earth. On my property I built a home for my family and started a horticultural business. Because I was an exceptional gardener, my business thrived and I became known as a very successful businessman — perhaps the first of African descent in New Jersey but certainly the first in my town of Newark. Among my clientele were the wealthiest residents of Newark.
My gifts to my family upon my death were land, a business , and a reputation among my peers and the wealthy of being an intelligent, and talented man who was faithful to my family and to my God. I lived to be 100 and my wife and I were fortunate enough to raise a large family that, for a good period of time, remained in Newark and in New Jersey. I was buried in Newark on March 5, 1823. I was funeralized and buried under the auspices of Trinity Church and Cemetery which was located where The New Jersey Performing Arts Center now stands. My descendants carried the name and stories of my success with them so future generations would know of their heritage.
There is a plaque dedicated to me on the campus of The New Jersey Performing Art Center that states:
FORMER SLAVE WHO FOUGHT BRAVELY IN THE AMERICAN
REVOLUTION AND WAS AWARDED LAND IN NEWARK FOR HIS
Kofi Ayim, Jack Cudjo, Newark’s Revolutionary Soldier & First Black Businessman. Reedbuck, Inc., December, 2011.
Newark Public Library. “Blacks in New Jersey: The Journey Towards Economic Freedom.” Available at: https://knowingnewark.npl.org/blacks-in-new-jersey-the-journey-toward-economic-freedom/
Art: Joe Barsin