Jack Knarr, Staff Writer
The Trentonian, Trenton NJ
May 31, 2005
PENNINGTON -- For decades, the tiny cemetery here has remained hidden. There is no sign on South Main Street saying, "Pennington African Cemetery." Few realized there were nine black Civil War heroes buried back there.
Oh, the plot was known. But you had to ask for it. You go back an unmarked cinder path in the 400 block, and there -- bounded by the trees and the sky and the quiet -- are the simple gravestones of the cemetery for the "Colored," as the grave of George W. Williamson notes.
Some stones had been toppled, a few damaged. Revolutionary War era markers are gone. There were years the place grew closely back to nature.
Yesterday morning, there were no buglers making appearances, no governors or commanders or essay-winners. Just a dozen or so friends, paying tribute to the warriors of the past.
Civil rights activist Laurence Hamm of Newark, head of the People's Organization for Progress (POP) was on hand. So was Jean Ross of Princeton; she and veteran Larry Tift of Trenton are opening a new branch of POP in Mercer.
But it was the kindly old gentleman, Albert Witcher of Pennington Borough, who has been most responsible for saving the cemetery, along with Jim Mitchell of Hopewell Township.
"The last burial was in the early 1960s, and that was of a spouse to someone who died in the 1940s," said Witcher's daughter, Angela. "After segregation ended, people started being buried where they wanted. So fewer people were left who remembered the people buried there."
Development encroached. People lost interest. The cemetery grew back to "field" conditions. Only her father -- old enough to carry a deep remembrance of those buried there -- cared.
"He mowed the grass and did the weed-whacking, and maintained the cemetery so Mother Nature didn't scarf it," said Angela Witcher. "No one paid for this. He accepted it, he never let it drop."
Finally, the Pennington African Cemetery Association was formed, and a deed acquired, boundaries surveyed. A state grant paid for a black iron fence, "to make it a place," she said.
"We come today to honor the African-American Civil War veterans that fought in the Union Army," said Larry Hamm.
"It's not a well-known fact ... that 200,000 African-Americans fought in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Civil War ... over 180,000 in 163 units in the Union Army; 40,000 were killed in combat.
"And over 24 Africa-American men received the Congressional Medal of Honor for distinguished service," he said.
"You can imagine, they must have had to perform super-human feats, to be recognized at that time," Hamm said, laughing.
These were the people responsible for breaking the "slavocracy", Hamm said. He said slavery only ended because "a very cataclysmic civil war was fought in this country."
"The fact of the matter is, had it not been for the sacrifice of these African-American men who fought in the Civil War, and all of those who fought for the Union to break the back of the slavocracy, slavery might have continued for another 50 years."
Some 620,000 Americans died on both sides, he added. He recalled the horrors of Antietam and Gettysburg, of 35,000 men dying in one day.
"But we stand today without the chains, because of their tremendous effort," Hamm said.
Then they walked through the cemetery, noting the names of the heroes: William H. Boyer, John Leo (who died at only 16, going to Rhode Island to join), Isaac R. Williams, William Johnston, Randolph Jones, Philip Sener, Charles S. Jennings, Joseph C. Seruby, George Boldin, and George W. Williamson.
"Memorial Day is related to the Civil War," Hamm said. "The first Memorial Day was observed on May 30, 1868.
"We felt it was important to recognize these black soldiers who did so much," he said. "Remember, they didn't just join up like everybody else.
"Most of them had to escape from slavery, cross the Union lines, and then join the Union Army. And then many of them faced hardship and discrimination within the Union Army. There was discrimination, there was lower pay for the black soldier.
"But their greater concern was the freedom of their people, and the freedom of their loved ones and family."
Newark Teacher David Hungerford said "the decision made to employ the African-American in the Union Army was the crucial political turning point of the Civil War -- and one of the most crucial actions in the history of the United States."
"Our children must know their history," vowed POP member Wilhelmina Holder. "If they did, they would not declare war on us. They must understand that the blood of these warriors was shed for our freedom."
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