2004-02-27 / Front Page
Town to preserve cemetery for early black residents
Small graveyard was found and restored by Eagle Scout
BY ELAINE VAN DEVELDE
If the tombstones could talk, they would tell tales of Tinton Falls’ fallen black Civil War veterans and their families. They have been there, beneath the stones for more than a century in the tiny, tattered graveyard that was for years unattended, off Squankum Road.
"Fallen, I give my spirit … " reads the barely legible grave marking of Richard P. Revey who "died Sept. 28, 1868, aged 83 years and 11 months" and rests in what is now called the Shadow Rest Memorial Park. The near 1-acre, more than a century old cemetery is the long-forgotten eternal resting place for more than 60 of the borough’s African-American settlers. Of those 66 marked graves, at least seven belong to fallen black soldiers of the Civil War.
A small flag waves over the thicket that lay beneath the stone of the Rev. James G. Palmer who was "born Dec. 3, 1839 (and) died May 30, 1883." Palmer, the marker says, was a member of the "U.S. Colored Troops."
Long masked by overgrown brush, this ode to some of Tinton Falls’ first black inhabitants was uncovered a few years ago, in 1998, by an Eagle Scout who took the hidden burial grounds on as his project. "No one even knew it was there before that," Mayor Ann McNamara said. "We are so grateful that this rich part of our heritage has been uncovered. A developer built back there and, because the graveyard was uncovered, he put up two posts to mark the entrance and set it apart. Now, we are going to pass an ordinance (which was introduced a few weeks ago) to protect the site from any development infringement. It will be preserved forever as a historic site — we owe that much to those people who rest there."
Not much is known about those people except what time has not yet erased off their tombstones, the oldest of which dates back to 1851, as far as anyone can tell. Some graves are marked only with a rock and others, still, have not a trace of etching remaining.
According to his stone, Alfred J. Berry, who "died in 1897" and was "aged 50 years" was a member of the 41st Regt. U.S.C.I, or U.S. Colored Infantry. And there are more like Berry, whose barely legible markings tell a story of serving and/or dying in the Civil War. There was Chas C. Vincent of the 23rd U.S.C.I. and Edward Berry, who lived from 1844 to 1887.
Then there were families. Some women’s graves were marked with only their first names and a testament of who they were born or married to and how long they lived. Ester, for instance, was the "wife of John B. Wilson (and) died May 17th, 1884, aged 66 years." Margaret, though, died June 30, 1862 and was aged 15 years, 8 months and 17 days.
The cemetery, borough historians found out, was actually deeded to the tiny St. Thomas AME Zion Church on Squankum Road. "The church’s clerk Elva Duncan researched that information and found out, through notes written long ago by her grandmother, who was also the church’s clerk in the 1920s, that the graveyard actually belonged to the church," McNamara said. "So, naturally, Elva is thrilled that it will be preserved. It was her work that has enabled us to get this historic preservation ordinance together."
Duncan’s relatives are probably buried there, McNamara added, which makes the preservation especially rewarding. Calling the site an unearthed jewel of Tinton Falls heritage, McNamara said the souls of these long-forgotten citizens could now rest with the knowledge that they will never be neglected or trampled over, but honored forever.
No one may ever know who lies beneath some of the unmarked graves or worn stones, but people now know these few faceless, black fighters and friends of Tinton Falls as a piece of time, honored history properly put to rest, the mayor concluded.