Corrupt Courts & Families Torn Apart: Then & Now

In the media we have been seeing or hearing descriptions images of children alone — some as young as three years — in front of judges, conducting hearings on whether they will be deported South, outside of this nation’s borders.

The images are exquisitely heartbreaking, combined with knowledge of the wider process of separating families seeking asylum. The current administration’s policy and practice has resulted in a public outcry and public refusal to allow this cruelty to continue. The court-ordered deadline for the current administration to reunite families has come and gone, with some families reunited, some not, and many lost to the chaotic system that increases the cruelty of this system.

While unacceptable versions of this approach to our immigration system continue, the public’s engagement is at an all-time high. I consider this a good thing in our democracy.

While on vacation recently, I was traveling out of state and ended up in a conversation about our local Central Jersey history — how 200 years ago, in 1818, a Middlesex County judge (a resident of East Brunswick, the town where the congregation I serve is), abused his powers and a loophole in the law, sending over a hundred African Americans into permanent slavery by sending them to the Deep South. Some were enslaved adults, some were already free. Some were children, including one as young as two days, still unnamed while in the corrupt judge’s court — named Joseph by the time the ship sailed and took him and his mother away.

The loophole in the law said that someone could go to the Deep South into slavery of their own choosing.

Never mind that no one chooses such a thing voluntarily.

Just like none of these people seeking asylum are voluntarily leaving their homes and risking that which is dearest to them.

One of the rumored stories from this historic outrage is Judge Jacob Van Wickle calling a six-week old before him in this “kangaroo court,” asking her if she would like to go to Louisiana. The baby cried, which Van Wickle deemed as consent. The Judge then turned to her mother, asking the same question. Under threat of being separated from her child, she “consented” to the loss of her own freedom. These are real people, members of our community; their names were Rachel and Regina.

As I told this story to my new friend, we both recognized the resemblance to our current national situation. A child alone in front of a judge deciding the child’s fate. A mother under the extreme duress of being separated from her child. And though I do not have reason to believe that any of the immigration judges have a personal financial profit motive, it has come to light how many corporations have multi-million-dollar contracts to maintain the system of detention of both adults and children.

On August 1, two hundred years ago today, the third boatload of enslaved African Americans from this slave ring sailed South. By October of that year, public outcry would bring the Van Wickle slave ring to an end. Public outcry now is crucial to bring to an end the large and small cruelties taking place in our nation.

There is a voluntary community effort to ensure that this aspect of our local history, which was lost and whitewashed for a time, is not forgotten again. The Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is working to grow community awareness, as well as to build a public memorial that will remember the names of the souls lost to this corrupt judge and the system of slavery in this nation.

We are holding a planning meeting on August 7 at 7pm at The Unitarian Society on Tices Lane. We hope you will join us at the meeting, or check us out on our Facebook page, to learn more about our efforts.

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

The Unitarian Society, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation

East Brunswick, NJ