AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

In the middle of Central New Jersey, there's a clearing with a hole. It's about six feet deep and 15 feet across and inside are the remains of a town.

For decades, people have been saying that clearing was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now, archeologists are excavating and seeing that freed and escaped slaves didn't just pass through this stop, they stayed. NPR's Sam Sanders reports on the town they built.

SAM SANDERS: Half an hour south of Trenton, New Jersey, just off the turnpike, there's a parched, nondescript, five-acre plot of land. Months ago, except for a few trees, it was empty. Now, a team of archeologists is at work.

Patricia Markert of Temple University and about a dozen others are digging and cleaning on a 100-degree July day.

PATRICIA MARKERT: We've been here since June 3rd, June 4th. Our last official day was July 3rd. So...

SANDERS: What they're finding are the remains of Timbuctoo, a stop on the Underground Railroad that became a self-sustaining village. Escaped and freed blacks started the settlement in the 1820s, well before the Civil War and emancipation. And the last families didn't leave until the 1950s. At its peak, Timbuctoo - spelled with a C and two O's, housed more than 150 people.

Patricia Markert's standing near a gaping hole in the field where a building once stood. Her team has carefully dug down layer by layer. The holes edges are lined with tarp, shovels, brushes and rope lines. Underground are several houses, roadways, remains of a church and a school.

MARKERT: So the first area that we really dug are these center bricks, the center of the eastern foundation that you see here.

SANDERS: The bricks they found are throwaways from the Quaker brickyard that used to operate down the road. The construction isn't topnotch: The residents of Timbuctoo did the best they could with what they had.

CHRIS BARTON: These people had to deal with Jim Crow laws. They had to deal with slavery. They had to deal with economic oppression and racism. And that's what we're trying to really find.

SANDERS: That's Chris Barton, the Temple archeologist leading the excavation. He says that every artifact recovered helps show the amazing tenacity of Timbuctoo residents, like what's known as the Battle of Pine Swamp. In 1860, the town rallied to protect a runaway slave named Perry Simmons from Southern bounty hunters.

MARKERT: Most of that stuff is...

SANDERS: Today, about 40 feet from the hole, Patricia Markert rummages through an old, white van. It's full of bottles, tools and toys dug up from the ground.

MARKERT: Let's see. What else can I get for you? These bottles are interesting.

SANDERS: Those bottles are for household products like Listerine and Vaseline. What's notable is that most of the brand names on the bottles are national because white-owned local stores rarely sold to the people of Timbuctoo. Residents often ordered supplies by mail so vendors wouldn't know they were black.

One of the local volunteers, 75-year-old Mary Weston, lives just down the street. Since the dig began, she's been a fixture at the site.

MARY WESTON: Because my great-great-great-grandfather purchased the land for, actually it was $38 dollars, I think, and 50 cents.

SANDERS: He was one of the founders of Timbuctoo. Inside Mary Weston's home, only a few hundred feet down the road, she's been collecting the history of her family and Timbuctoo. She's sitting on her freshly vacuumed floor surrounded by artifacts.

WESTON: This is my family Bible. It was passed down to me from the 1800s, and I'm quite excited about that. I keep it together with a belt because I am determined that my children and my grandchildren will know a lot more about not only their family but about their heritage, who they are, where they came from.

SANDERS: Back at the dig, the mayor of Westampton Township, Sidney Camp, has arrived. He was a frequent visitor to the clearing before he knew it was Timbuctoo.

SIDNEY CAMP: When I was having a bad day, I would come out here and just stand in the middle of this field because it's so peaceful and serene out here. And now, you know, to come out now and see what I've been standing over for so many years is amazing. It's indescribable.

SANDERS: And that's why the team plans to dig up no more than a fifth of the entire village: to preserve that serenity and the legacy of Timbuctoo.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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