Five men dressed in civil war regalia stood in a line in front of an old build with a promising construction outline. Two men held swords. One had a musket and one held a piccolo playing well-known marching tunes. They cheered huzzah as they were surrounded by Amazon workers, city leaders, and press cameras video tapping and snapping photos of the Sixth Regiment United States Colored Troops receiving two $5,000 checks for restoring the Locust Hill Cemetery.
For the past 20 years, Algeron Ward Jr, the president of the Sixth Regiment United States Colored Troops and Project Director for the Locust Hill, has been on a mission to serve historic Trenton. “This area is the largest remaining African American Cemetery in the city of Trenton. (The cemetery) is an artifact from when blacks were not allowed to be buried with whites…This cemetery, over the years, had gotten neglected and overgrown, and memories of those souls have been lost to time,” Ward said.
The Locust Hill Cemetery hosts over 200 African American graves, 10 of whom are Civil War Veterans and were lost to history until 20 years ago. The area was used as a dumping site. The grave markers were used as bases for kids when they played baseball. It was never known to be a graveyard until 20 years ago when Ward began researching the area, sending notices to City Council, and partnering with organizations across Trenton.
Using historical records and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Ward proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a cemetery rested there. Then he began building and maintaining the cemetery. After 2020, he focused on creating a museum to tell the stories of those buried there.
“We’re restoring the cemetery, and we are going to open the museum to interpret the lives of the people that were buried during the Reconstruction Era here in Trenton. The stories they have to tell are worthy of us commemorating… because if you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going,” Ward said.
When Dr. Shirley Gaines, part of the Social Distancing Team at Amazon and a Police Chaplin in Trenton, heard about the work, she realized she could help more with than donating and volunteering. “I met with Algernon because I do a lot in the community, and he reached out to me and told me about what was going on. So I came down, took a look at what he was doing, gave a donation, and I said I got to get other people involved,” Dr. Gaines said,
“I’m from the city, and I didn’t even know this existed here. So to have 10 Civil War veterans with no grave markers and 190 other residents here that have no recognition. It’s disheartening,” said Delane Weltch, Operations Manager at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Florence, NJ.
He contacted Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN). “I looked at that as an immediate opportunity to be able to make a long-lasting impact and create a legacy for ourselves. So I immediately went and took this idea to the senior team…the response was outstanding,” The hope is to help with donations and construct the museum’s building as the year goes on. “A building like this is going to take some time to put together. The goal is to pull in some donations for the building as well as provide consistent volunteers until the launch of the actual grand opening,” Weltch said.
Creating the museum beside the graveyard is a foundation for redevelopment within the East Trenton Area. The goal is to have an area that can expand on the city’s historic nature, Mayor Reed Gusciora said. “We have 10 African American soldiers that fought in the Civil War. So it’s hallowed ground. And this is an opportunity to revitalize the neighborhood and every building that we can revitalize and enhance the neighborhood and enhance the city…This is going to be part of an African American history trail that will come parallel the crossroads of the revolution,” Mayor Gusciora said.
Although, it is an add-on by the East Trenton Collaborative. Sheryl Snider, a Community Organizer with East Trenton Collaborative, stayed the entire time holding a sign saying “Welcome Black Employees Network of Amazon to Locust Hill,” made by the kids at the East Trenton Collaborative after-school program.
With the help of organizations across Trenton, The East Trenton Collaborative is helping renovate and establish homeowners in East Trenton. “We see abandoned buildings, and we work with the city of Trenton to purchase them. We then fix them up and sell, not rent. We work with other organizations that help first-time homebuyers. And we work with banks to do with first time down $10,000 down payment assistance and the fruit of our labor we get and residents coming into East Trenton Collaborative with ownership,” Snider said
Ward explained that the best thing for those who want to help is sending donations or volunteering a weekend at Locust Hill and helping rebuild it. “This is the linchpin of neighborhood revitalization,” Ward said. “This is just a centerpiece. And we’re going to develop this entire community. So this is the first part of what people can do is stick with Trenton,” Ward said.