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THE LEGEND OF SIMON DOUGLAS

Record - 2/8/2018

"For us, he was a legend. He was an ex-slave who came here and stayed for 84 years. He wouldn't have done that if he didn't like it here."

Silvio Laccetti, Fairview

Simon Douglas was 106 years old when his friends carried him into the courthouse in Hackensack. By then he was blind, and no one -- not the white man who'd owned him as a slave, not the Confederate nor the Union army, in both of which Douglas served -- ever taught him to read.

So when Judge John Grimshaw informed Douglas that he faced eviction from his home, the old blacksmith was surprised.

Douglas told the court that "the first he heard about having no home of his own, he said, was 6 months ago," according to a story about the court hearing printed in The Bergen Evening Record on Oct. 7, 1949.

All he wanted, Douglas pleaded, was to keep a roof over his head. Grimshaw was moved. The judge stayed the order to evict one of America's last surviving Civil War veterans on one condition: that Douglas pay the borough of Fairview his property tax debt of $3,000, equal at the time to an average worker's annual salary.

Hundreds of people in Bergen County were moved, too. One was Michael Orrechio, then Bergen County's chief of detectives, who grew up a few blocks from Douglas' house, and who used to watch the old blacksmith make shoes for his father's horses. Another was Donald Borg, publisher of The Record, who saw in Douglas' plight an opportunity to solicit his readers' empathy (and sell more newspapers).

Together they led a campaign to raise enough money to save Douglas' home, Orrechio by tapping his friends in Fairview and around the county, Borg by running stories every few weeks in The Record, asking for donations.

"That's the Simon Douglass story," read an editorial printed in The Record to kick off the campaign, one of several articles that used this spelling of Douglas' surname. "If any part of it means anything to you, you might sit down now and write on a check how much it means."

It worked. Envelopes -- many filled with a single dollar bill, others with coins -- arrived at The Record's headquarters on Main Street in Hackensack. After three months, they raised enough money that Judge Grimshaw ordered the house returned to Douglas on Dec. 1.

In addition to keeping Douglas in his home, the campaign reminded residents of Bergen County's history as a 19th-century agricultural hub just as North Jersey's farms succumbed to the suburban sprawl that came to define the region in the 20th century.

Without the publicity effort, it's almost certain that Douglas would have been forgotten entirely. Instead, during this Black History Month, a few residents in Fairview are working to make sure Douglas is remembered well into the 21st century. "For us, he was a legend," said Silvio Laccetti, a longtime Fairview resident who lived near Douglas' blacksmithing shop as a child. "He was an ex-slave who came here and stayed for 84 years. He wouldn't have done that if he didn't like it here."

Joining 'Sherman's bummers'

Simon Douglas was born into slavery in 1843 on a plantation in Fairfield County, South Carolina, according to research by Jay Hoar, a former English professor at the University of Maine in Farmington who wrote three books totaling around 2,000 pages about the last 800 Civil War veterans to survive into the mid-1900s, including six pages dedicated to Douglas.

As a young man, Douglas was conscripted into the Confederate Army, Hoar found, then somehow switched sides. He joined the Union forces as one of "Sherman's bummers," a group of helpers and hangers-on who traveled with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his famous march to the sea, laying waste to military bases and private homes from Atlanta to Savannah.

Douglas worked as a blacksmith, making shoes for the cavalry's horses. Someone in the Army advised him to flee the South as soon as he could, and Douglas agreed. In 1866 he settled in what was then part of Ridgefield, a remote farming community hemmed in by the Palisades to the east and the meadows to the west.

It was a strange choice. Most African-Americans who participated in the great diaspora from the South through New Jersey settled in industrial cities like Newark, Jersey City and New York, according to the book "Mapping New Jersey," which tracks the state's socioeconomic history.

Yet Douglas liked the area enough that in 1874 he bought a former hayloft in a neighborhood that later became Fairview. He turned the property into his home and blacksmith shop, married, raised a daughter and a son, and won the respect of his neighbors.

"Mr. Douglas was a very modest man. He was about 5'10", physically and morally strong," Michael Orrechio told Hoar by letter in 1987. "He was fond of children, and would talk to us at length about his horses."

After years of weakening eyesight, Douglas was forced to retire when he went blind in 1939. He was 96. With no income, he fell behind on his property taxes. In 1940, the borough of Fairview foreclosed on his house and sold it to a local mortgage company, which sued Douglas in Superior Court.

The case of a former slave clinging to his old barn of a house caught the attention of a newspaper and a county moving swiftly in the opposite direction. In the midst of The Bergen Evening Record's campaign on Douglas' behalf, every day that fall, the newspaper overflowed with stories about Bergen County's explosive growth.

On a single page printed on Aug. 17, 1949, the paper ran one story announcing the groundbreaking ceremony for a 124-unit apartment complex in Hasbrouck Heights, another about a company selling 20 brand-new houses a week in Clifton, another about demand for new apartments outpacing supply at a 350-unit complex in River Edge, and another about a new factory planned for Teterboro.

In the midst of all these changes sat Douglas' old house, which in 1949 had no running water, no electricity and no heat besides a potbellied stove, said Al DeMuro, 59, a Fairview native who toured the home years later.

Sleepy Broad Avenue had morphed into U.S. Routes 1&9, a busy highway. Torpedo-shaped Buicks and Cadillacs sped past the old Douglas home, which was still decorated with wagon wheels in the living room, DeMuro said.

"People in town loved Mr. Douglas and his family," said DeMuro, a third-generation resident of Fairview. "They were old-fashioned and very mild-mannered."

In his research, Hoar stumbled across news accounts of the successful campaign on behalf of Douglas, who paid his debt and kept his home. Hoar believes Douglas was among the last 65 Civil War veterans left in America, and the last in New Jersey, when he died on March 8, 1950. He was 107.

Douglas is buried at the northwestern edge of Hackensack Cemetery, hard against the intersection of Route 4, Kinderkamack Road and the tracks of NJ Transit's Pascack Valley line. Above his grave, a digital billboard flashes ads for the Liberty Travel company.

Douglas' neighbors had hoped to save his home again, and possibly turn it into a local history museum, but it burned to the ground in the early 1970s, DeMuro said. With nothing left in Fairview to memorialize this quiet and obscure veteran, Laccetti said he plans to buy Hoar's books, with their brief summary of Douglas' life, and donate them to the Fairview Public Library.

"The people in Fairview championed Douglas because he was poor but much beloved," Hoar said. "They're still championing him, I suppose. And so am I."

Email: maag@northjersey.com

"For us, he was a legend. He was an ex-slave who came here and stayed for 84 years. He wouldn't have done that if he didn't like it here."

Silvio Laccetti, Fairview

Garden State of Mind

Christopher Maag, North Jersey Record

USA TODAY NETWORK - N.J.

On the Web

See a gravesite visit at NorthJersey.com.

 
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