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PENNINGTON: Historical association recognized for work on African-American cemetery preservation

At the end of a long lane, next to 417 S. Main Street in Pennington Borough, lies a small sliver of history that could have easily been forgotten – the Pennington African Cemetery.

But through the hard work of the Pennington African Cemetery Association, the final resting place of black residents who contributed to the town has been preserved and maintained.

And for those efforts, the Pennington African Cemetery Association was awarded the Historic Preservation Award for 2017 by the Pennington Historic Preservation Commission at the annual awards ceremony on Jan. 30.

The Pennington African Cemetery was chosen for the award because of the “incredible hard work” of the volunteer members of the Pennington African Cemetery Association, said Eric Holtermann, who chairs the Pennington Historic Preservation Commission.

From teachers to preachers, from singers to public servants, laborers and military veterans, more than 200 members of Pennington’s black community are buried in the cemetery. Only a handful of headstones survive.

“We are the stewards and we maintain the grounds,” said Angela Witcher, who belongs to the Pennington African Cemetery Association. Along with her sister, Suzen Witcher, she accepted the award from the Pennington Historic Preservation Commission.

For more than 100 years – from the Civil War-era to the Civil Rights-era – it was an actively used burial ground, Angela Witcher said at the ceremony. The cemetery contains the graves of nearly a dozen military veterans, some of whom served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War on the Union side.

The Pennington African Cemetery was formally established in 1863. That’s when a deed was issued to five men who worked with the Bethel AME Church to ensure that black families had a cemetery of their own. Blacks could not be buried in white cemeteries.

The first known burial, however, predates the formal establishment of the cemetery. That burial was of Elizabeth Alling, who died in 1859. There is evidence of an even earlier grave that belonged to Julia Hubbard, who died in 1830. Mary E. Abbott, who died in 1964, was the last person to be buried there.

Among others whose resting place is in the Pennington African Cemetery is Charles Hendrickson, who died in 1902. He was the lamplighter for Pennington Borough, and lit the gas lamps along Main Street. He was a popular figure, Angela Witcher said.

Nelson Smith, who owned a bakery in Pennington in the 1940s, also is buried in the cemetery, Witcher said. Smith, long with Hendrickson, were among the members of the black community who contributed to its vitality, she added.

George L. Blackwell, known as “Uncle George,” also is buried in the cemetery. He was a prominent member of Pennington Borough’s black community, and was an occasional preacher. He was a longtime employee of the Pennington School, who died in 1940.

Among the military veterans buried in the cemetery is Charles S. Jennings, who ran away from home to enlist in the Union Army and who served in the U.S. Colored Troops. In later years and up until his death in 1928, he made sure that American flags were placed at the graves of Civil War veterans in the Pennington African Cemetery.

And then there was William H. Boyer, who also served in the U.S. Colored Troops. The Pennington schools were segregated, so he taught young black children at the Bethel AME Church on Main Street. He died in 1901.

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