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A military cemetery whose African American history is hidden in plain sight

Storyboards at Philadelphia National Cemetery tell of the nation's youngest Civil War general and the Confederate soldiers buried there. There is no mention of the 350 U.S. Colored Troops, brave fighters for the Union Army, who share the West Oak Lane graveyard.

Walking with World War II vet Benjamin Berry (left), Ed McLaughlin is trying get the V.A. to erect a storyboard about the 1,000 African American Civil War soldiers who are buried in a segregated corner of Philadelphia National Cemetery.
Walking with World War II vet Benjamin Berry (left), Ed McLaughlin is trying get the V.A. to erect a storyboard about the 1,000 African American Civil War soldiers who are buried in a segregated corner of Philadelphia National Cemetery.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

On holidays set aside to honor America's veterans, Philadelphia National Cemetery is like most other military burial grounds, a field of white gravestones and Old Glorys, echoing with patriotic speeches and solemn bugle calls.

When the ceremonies are over, though, those 13 hallowed acres tucked away in West Oak Lane are trod mostly by groundskeepers. The graveyard, a guardian of more than two centuries of United States history, is left alone with its heroic stories.

Of the 11,500 veterans and family members buried in Philadelphia National, many were African American soldiers, for the most part interred in segregated sections of the cemetery. At least 350 were U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) who fought in the Civil War and trained at Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, the first such facility for black enlistees in the Union Army.

Nearly two years ago, the VA National Cemetery Administration erected three storyboards highlighting the graveyard's significance.  One was about the cemetery, the oldest of four national cemeteries in the Philadelphia region. Another was about Valley Forge native Galusha Pennypacker, who at age 20 became the youngest person ever to hold the rank of brigadier general. The last was dedicated to 184 Confederate soldiers buried there after being wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg and dying in area hospitals.

There was none for the U.S. Colored Troops.

An embarrassing oversight, declared Ed McLaughlin. A 74-year-old Army veteran from Flourtown and retired satellite designer for Lockheed Martin, he and a corps of supporters have been fighting ever since to set it right.

McLaughlin already knew all about the cemetery and its unheralded history. A genealogy buff who frequently visited Philadelphia National to research his family, he had seen the USCT graves, recognizable by the acronym engraved on the headstones.

"I realized the enormity of it," he said. "This is important. This is an historical treasure. It has to be known."

The National Cemetery Administration has heard the plea.

Gregory Whitney, director of Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County, oversees the region's four national cemeteries, as well as the veterans sections of Mount Moriah Cemetery spanning Philadelphia and Yeadon. He said a visitor requested a storyboard for the USCT during last year's Memorial Day ceremonies at Philadelphia National, after which  Whitney visited the Camp William Penn Museum in Cheltenham Township.  Since then, he said, he has conveyed the complaints of McLaughlin and others to the National Cemetery Administration's historian. "It doesn't hurt to write a letter," he tells storyboard supporters.

"I don't know what the criteria was" for the storyboards, Whitney said. "A lot of Civil War cemeteries have a lot of history. So you may have two storyboards in one cemetery, but could argue for 10 more."

For some, the concerns run deeper than simply overlooked history.  "It is inappropriate to have information on the Confederates, who were fighting against the U.S., and not have something for the USCT who are buried there," said James Paradis, an adjunct history professor at Arcadia University in Glenside and author of the article "Men of Nerve: The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry in the Civil War."

The cemetery was established in 1862 to consolidate the burials of Civil War soldiers who had been interred in cemeteries throughout the area. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Occupying the USCT graves were former slaves and free men who had trained at Camp William Penn, in such unsanitary conditions that typhoid and malaria sometimes killed the men before they stepped onto the battlefield, said Donald  Scott Sr., a professor at Community College of Philadelphia and author of Camp William Penn: 1863-1865.

Inspired by the history of the USCT,  McLaughlin began his own research. He plumbed military records downloaded from the National Archives, including pension information, pay stubs, and death certificates. He created a database, then began talking about what he had found to veterans groups and civic organizations.

World War II veteran Benjamin Berry, 93, attended one of those meetings and quickly became a disciple. He has visited Philadelphia National many times, and placed flags on USCT graves.

"I like walking or driving through," said Berry, of Mount Airy, who landed in Normandy 22 days after the Battle of the Bulge. "Most times, I'm the only one there, except for the groundskeeper."

Among the records that McLaughlin collected were those of Perry Hall, a corporal in the USCT. They painted only a skeletal picture of the serviceman. But by then, 83-year-old Cicero Green, of Elkins Park, already knew the story of his great-grandfather.

In 1995, during a housecleaning, Green discovered a military document about Hall, leading him and his family to look into their ancestor's life.

Hall had trained at Camp William Penn and then was stationed in Florida, guarding Confederate prisoners. Hall, who was in charge of artillery, was blinded when a cannon misfired.  He regained sight in one eye after treatment and returned to Philadelphia, where he died in 1905.

Green, who himself helped crack the color barrier among United Parcel Service drivers in the 1960s, has attended the annual Memorial Day observance at Philadelphia National, which draws about 100 people. The effort to have a storyboard erected is "great," he said, "because so much of our history remains untold."

Letters calling for a storyboard already have been written by Althea Hankins, director of the  ACES Museum in Philadelphia, which preserves the history of black and minority military veterans, and Joyce Werkman,  president of Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott, a preservation group that runs the Camp William Penn Museum.

"We felt it was our duty to be involved," Hankins said. "It shows that we have gone from being unseen and separate to being a part of the American story."