May 25th 2015
City officials and UrbanPromise Academy rededicate a black cemetery where forgotten Civil War soldiers and sailors are buried in Camden.
CAMDEN – A procession of UrbanPromise Academy students, local dignitaries, veterans, history buffs and others respectfully filed past rows of several dozen weathered gravestones of veterans to the beat of a single drum.
Some in the line stopped to lay poppies — a Memorial Day symbol — on the flat stones and to read what was legible. A few leaned down and wiped some of the markers with one hand in hopes of brushing away any remaining dust so they could decipher more of the engraved names, military connections and dates of birth or death of soldiers like Charles H. Brown of the 41st Regiment of Philadelphia and sailor Milton Dix, a USS Princeton crew member who died in 1894.
The procession Friday to pay respects was a solemn ending to a ceremony marking the resurrection and rededication of a long-forgotten burial ground at Federal and 38th streets. Established in 1854, the cemetery has an estimated 250 to 300 graves, including 123 for African-American Civil War veterans and other early blacks who settled in Camden.
The graveyard is being renamed Johnson Cemetery Memorial Park, although the new sign was not delivered in time for the Memorial Day weekend event to commemorate soldiers known as U.S. Colored Troops.
City Council recently designated UrbanPromise Academy caretakers of the long-neglected and overgrown city-owned cemetery. It had become a "needle park," a haven for drug users and trash dumpers, until the high school students took a serious interest in it nearly three years ago and began cleaning it up. Their got involved after learning Civil War history and watching a video about the graves by filmmaker Kevin Walker, a lawyer and history buff who works for the state Public Defender's Office.
"This is one of Camden's cultural gems and it must be preserved ... and the sacrifice of the veterans and others who lay in rest must never be forgotten," said Mayor Dana Redd, who was joined by Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, Fire Chief Michael Harper and Council President Frank Moran.
"Youth like these children area helping to transform Camden and restore honor to the cemetery, and we are thankful," Redd said. "I am a strong believer in partnerships."
Ashley Gascot, a high school senior involved in the project, said after watching Walker's documentary, "The Lonely Bones," students decided to make the graveyard a school service project.
"How could we abandon Civil War veterans who served us? We are thankful to be giving back to veterans who gave us our freedom, and it's great to know this is just down the street from UrbanPromise," Gascot told a gathering of nearly 100.
The stones are not on the actual graves. Between 1975 and 1980, local officials moved headstones without disinterring the remains, in order to create a park with a ball field. The graves still lie under the grassy field.
Some upright stones were moved to the opposite side of the cemetery under trees and buried flat. Others were removed from the site altogether and taken to another location for disposal, possibly deposited in the Delaware River.
UrbanPromise Executive Director Jodina Hicks said the young people have led the way and generated donations of money or services for the project from Wegmans, philanthropist Jane Murphy and a local church.
Walker was thrilled that a custodial group is now involved, because he had suggested that approach due to limited city resources. When he did his film research, he sought out local historians and history enthusiast Samuel Asbell, a former Camden County prosecutor who had mapped 25 relocated stones and wrote a book, "The Lost Black Legion."
Since the students began a major cleanup, there are now 73 rediscovered stones. Many stones may never be found; some were broken in the move or by children playing years ago.
Among the buried veterans area William Miles Butts of Company B, 37th Regiment, who became the first black city policeman, and Peter Postels, the first black Camden County freeholder, as well as the first black city firemen.
While those troops likely all lived in South Jersey, Asbell said, they had to join regiments like the 41st out of Philadelphia because New Jersey did not have any black units.
"This is long overdue," said Delbert J. Nelson of Camden, senior vice commander of VFW Post 8003 in Lawnside, which absorbed the city's VFW, "and I am so glad to see it happen in my lifetime."
Written by: Carol Comegno, Courier-Post