IN THE NEWS: Clearview, Camden students work to clean up park that contains graves of Civil War veterans

Senior Alexandra Gonzalez, from The Urban Promise Academy in Camden, uses a toothbrush to clear dirt away from letters on a gravestone at Johnson Cemetery Park in Camden, Friday, April 26, 2013. With her is freshman Brandon Benitez. The Urban Promise Academy in partnership with Clearview and Voorhees High Schools clean up Johnson Cemetery Park in Camden, Friday, April 26, 2013. (Staff Photo by Tim Hawk/South Jersey Times)

ByJason Laday/South Jersey Times 

Few people know that under Johnson Memorial Park on Federal Street in East Camden lie the graves of possibly more than 100 African American soldiers, many of whom served in the Civil War

The 41 high school students at UrbanPromise Academy are trying the change that.

Before the minuscule, nondenominational Christian school adopted the park last autumn, dirt and weeds as well as the occasional hypodermic needle or beer bottle covered nearly all the gravestones at the park.

Now, 15 grave markers, all of them dating back to the 1890s, have been exposed, including four unearthed for the first time on Friday by a group that included nine UrbanPromise students as part of a senior service project.

“A lot of these people stepped up for our freedoms, and I feel like they’ve been disrespected by the state of the cemetery,” said Carlos Garcia, a senior at Urban Promise and one of 68 students who took park in Friday’s cleanup at the park. “I want to join the military, so for me it’s important that we clean it up, bring in some flowers and honor the people who were buried there.”

Joining the 41 UrbanPromise Academy students were 27 seniors from Clearview Regional High School in rural Harrison Township, Gloucester County. While some raked leaves and cleared litter, others searched for buried gravestones by gently striking the ground with picks and listening for the sound of metal on stone.

Johnson Park is Camden’s first African American cemetery, and is the final resting place of hundreds of soldiers, as well as the city’s first black police officer.

“We require all of our students to do community service, and each class does a group service project, so when we heard about the story of Johnson Park, it just seemed like an obvious connection for us,” said Kevin Watkins, a history teacher at UrbanPromise Academy. “We watched a documentary about it made by a local attorney named Kevin Walker, with historian Sam Asbell, and they learned all about it.

“It was a surprise that something right here in our community is an incredible piece of U.S. history and Camden history.”

Many of the headstones are illegible, but those that can be clearly read mark the graves of Civil War veterans who died in the last decades of the 19th century.

There’s Jacob Brisco of Company E, 2nd regiment, who died on Feb. 17, 1885. His grave reads “US colrd troops.”

Also buried there is Private George Lodine. Etched on his tombstone are the words “colored volunteer.”

Joining him are Milton Dix, who served on the USS Princeton and died on March 10, 1891; John W. Hamilton, born in Essex County, Va., who died on Oct. 18, 1896; and several others.

Alexandra Gonzalez was one of the seniors who cleared the dirt off the stones with a toothbrush.

“Growing up in East Camden, I always knew there was at least one gravestone out here, but mostly this was a park we came to when it snowed and made snowmen,” said Gonzalez. “Eventually we want to get a gate, so we can help protect the grave sites, and respect them.”

The students have only inspected a small fraction of the park. Joseph Palma, another senior who worked on the project, said the memorial likely holds approximately 110 graves.

"I already knew it was a cemetery," said the Camden native. "I just didn't know it was important.

"I feel a certain connection to the soldiers here — from the Civil War, to the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and the women who served, too."

The park is only a few blocks away from two liquor stores. Palma said the site over the years had been neglected and became littered with trash, including empty cans as well as marijuana bags.

“There was a bronze plaque at the park, but someone stole it,” said Palma.

On the other hand, when residents of the apartment complex, located just feet from the graves, saw the students working, they walked outside and asked how they could help.

“It’s about getting the community involved, and that’s exactly what they did when they realized what was going on,” said Demetrius Marlowe, principal at UrbanPromise Academy. “Death was being dishonored here in East Camden — the park can be easily forgotten and it has been, but hopefully not anymore.”