Sunday, April 20, 2008

Salute to Noah Cherry and Judge Ron Castille

A Salute to Noah Cherry

Just off the shoulder of the Garden State Parkway at mile marker 6.2 sits the grave of black civil war veteran Noah Cherry.

For years, those who took the time to look have noticed how well kept the grave site is. During the warmer months it is maintained with fresh flowers, and being that Cherry was a veteran, there are new flags on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Although the grave stone simply reads: Noah Cherry, Civil War Veteran 1831 March 17, 1907, it is believed there are as many as eight graves at the sight, including that of “General” Askew, another black civil war veteran.

Rev. Paul Armstrong first noticed Cherry’s unkempt grave while commuting from Fort Dix to Cape May, where he was an inter-service minister from 1978 until 1984, catering to the spiritual needs of the Coast Guardsmen.

With the assistance of Edward Gingras, the grounds superintendent for that section of the Parkway, Rev. Armstrong had the grave marker secured on a solid base and arranged for the landscaping to reflect the site’s status as a resting place for the Civil War veterans.

“I’ve been attending to the graves for the past twenty years, and will do so for another twenty, or as long as I am able,” said Armstrong, from the porch of his 6th Street Ocean City home.

The graves led Rev. Armstrong on a quest to learn more about their occupants, a quest he continues today. He learned that Noah Cherry served as a private in Company H, 36th regiment of the North Carolina Colored Volunteers. While blacks were only one percent of the population of the north at the time, they composed 10 percent of the Union Army, and were paid less than the regular troops.

Both Noah Cherry and “General” Askew, who was believed to be a private and was later tagged with the nickname “General,” were part of General Sherman’s army that marched across the South to the sea, destroying everything in its path.

How Cherry arrived in Cape May County is a story entwined with that of George Henry White, one of the first black congressmen elected to Congress.

Born in Rosindale, North Carolina in 1852, White was enslaved until the emancipation in 1862. After working on his family’s farm and attending public school he entered Howard University and studied law. Upon earning his degree he was admitted to the bar in 1879 and taught school before entering politics.

Elected to the state house of representatives and then to the state senate, he attempted to improve public education and the training of black teachers. White was the only black elected to the 55th Congress in 1897, where he served on the Agriculture Committee. He served two terms in the House of Representatives from North Carolina and was the last former slave to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Retiring from political life White decided to establish a black community in New Jerse, where economic opportunities were better.

Before the turn of the century White visited South Jersey at the suggestion of Rev. James Fishborn, pastor of the Cape May City African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Life for blacks in Cape May at the turn of the century was not much different than in South where racism was rampant. In June 1901 Cape May City councilman R. J. Creswell refused to allow blacks on a city sponsored trip to Wilmington, Delaware to witness the launching of the ferryboat “City of Cape May.”

The city administration refused to allow blacks to attend the new high school, relegating them to the old and dilapidated Franklin Street School until a segregated wing could be built at the new high school. A local newspaper reportedly campaigned for African Americans to be removed entirely from the city, claiming the “colored population” loitered about Lafayette Street drinking and insulting vacationers.

In response, the Colored American Equitable Industrial Organization was formed to support the establishment of a separate black community, a town in the country.

The organization was said to have been inspired by Booker T. Washington, a friend of White, whose law firm represented Washington when he published “Up from Slavery” in 1901. Both White and Washington were present at a ceremony in Cape May County when they discussed the founding of the organization and developed the concept of a separate black community. Other national black leaders involved included poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harriet Aletha Gibbs, Wiley H. Bates and Samuel Vick, as well as local blacks such as storeowner Joseph G. Vance, hotel porter Wiliam L. Selvy and Rev. Fishburn.

In August, 1901, White, Fishburn and other investors purchased 1700 acres of land eight miles north of Cape May City in Middle Township for $14,000 from Robert E .Hand, some of which was known as the Creese Plantation. It was, quite ironically, property previously owned by Aaron and Thomas Leaming, the area’s largest slave holders before the Civil War. Some of the land was said to have been sorghum fields of the failed Rio Grande Sugar Company, but most of it was densely wooded tracks of land.

White convinced some of his former constituents, including Henery W. Spaulding, Noah Cherry and General Askew to move permanently to what became known as White’s and later Whitesboro. At first they cleared the land, selling the wood to Philadelphia merchants, and much of the money earned was from wood cutting.

Once the village was established, others came to visit in the summers. White set up offices in downtown Washington D.C. and in Philadelphia, where he sold lots for a dollar down and a dollar a month until the balance was paid. Later the price would be raised to $5 down and $2 a month.

White set up the White Reality Company, with an office at Wildwood and Main Street (Rt. 9) in White, N.J. where an official Post Office was established a few years later. A bank, a church and meeting hall were also built in 1904.

An advertisement read: “Have you a home? Why not? Dear Friend: Why not own home at beautiful Whitesboro, N.J., near the sea? Owning a home makes you a better citizen and a more desirable neighbor. There is nothing on earth like a place you can call home when you own it.”

By 1906 there were 800 settlers living in the new utopia. In 1908 the Mt. Olive Baptist Church was built and a year later a schoolhouse was constructed on land donated to the Middle Township Board of Education.

Among the first settlers were Henry Spaulding, a carpenter, and his wife Hattie, whose son Theodore Spaulding became the first black Judge to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In December 1973, reporter J.J. Merritt tracked down a longtime area resident Mrs. Gladys Spaulding, who knew about the graves, but referred the journalist to an even better source, Mrs. Viola Stewart, who then lived on Pacific Avenue in Cape May Court House.

Mrs. Stewart’s aunt, Mrs. Wiley Jane Williams, was a distant relative of Noah Cherry, who was then a 91 year old seasonal resident of Whitesboro and Washington D.C. While still of sound mind she was asked about Noah Cherry by a local librarian, so Mrs. Williams composed a typed, seven page manuscript of her recollections.

“Noah Cherry was my great uncle,” she wrote. “He was a Civil War veteran, one of the men who marched wit General Sherman to the sea. I first saw Uncle Noah when he came to Whitesboro shortly after we had made our home there in 1903…Like us he had come from North Carolina…a most industrious and hard working man.” According to Mrs. Williams, Cherry built a small frame house on Main Street in Whitesboro and sent for his family, then living in Norfolk, Virginia.

”He was a great help to my father,” Mrs. Williams wrote, “especially at hog killing time. In spite of the fact that he was left handed,, I have seen him use that left hand to strike down extremely large hogs, always with remarkable accuracy.”

“I used to love to hear Uncle Noah singing at prayer meeting, which was held in our home at 5:00 a.m. each Sunday morning. This was because at this time no colored church had been organized in Whitesboro. In my mind I can still hear him singing in his deep but clear baritone voice his favorite hymn by Isaac Watts…He sung it to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.”

Among her recollections Mrs. Williams recalled two strange incidents that occurred before Noah Cherry died. One “incredible incident” was when Noah Cherry came into the house out of the rain and collapsed on the floor, apparently dead.

While Mrs. Williams’ mother went out to get assistance, her younger sister Lena touched the hand of Noah Cherry, who, she wrote, “began uttering distinct moans and groans that startled everyone present. Now that he regained consciousness he was his old self again.”

What happened was that Cherry had hurt his hand and rubbed it with turpentine, which mixed with the rain created fumes which overcame him.

Mrs. Williams’ father later said that he was concerned about what to do if Noah Cherry had actually died, for there was no undertaker in town, nor a cemetery for Negroes.

Noah Cherry’s actual death was even stranger. “One night Uncle Noah heard a loud sound at his door,” wrote Mrs. Williams. “Whatever it was had left and gone through the darkness across the field in a great whirlwind and was shouting loudly, so loudly that it was deafening. ‘Lazarus Laws! Lazarus Laws! Lazarus Laws! It was a moan full, wailing, unearthly sound. Uncle Noah did not know what to make of it all.”

Lazarus Laws died that night, while Noah Cherry and a third man, who owned the house towards which Cherry had seen the apparition heading, died soon after.

Noah Cherry was buried in Block 1, Grave 1 in the Old Whitesboro cemetery. “General” Askew was also buried nearby when he died a few years later.

According to Merritt’s account, Noah Cherry’s house burnt down in 1924, his grandson died a few years later, with his sister dying shortly thereafter. Cherry’s great grandson “lost his mind” and died in a mental institution in 1943.

Noah Cherry’s grand daughter in law Mollie Cherry died in the late 1960s, “the last of the descendants of my late Uncle Noah,” wrote Mrs. Williams.

While some of those who were buried in that cemetery were reburied at the House of Ruth cemetery when the Garden State Parkway came through in the mid-1950s, the graves of Noah Cherry and possibly as many as seven others were left where they were.

“No one knows why,” said Rev. Armstrong, who is researching the background of Noah Cherry and would like anyone with more information to contact him.

Since J. J. Merritt quoted extensively from Mrs. William’s manuscript, at least one copy of it existed in 1973, but no one seems to be able to find a copy of it today. The diary of Whiley Jean Williams, which could contain additional information, has not been located.

A ceremony was held at the grave on Veterans Day to commemorate the new base and landscaping, and other small ceremonies will be held to honor the brave, black veterans, whose gravestones are now a Parkway landmark.

[Originally published in the SandPaper, Friday, May 22, 1998]

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