For Algernon Ward ’87, preserving and protecting the sacred grounds of Locust Hill is high privilege.
The Locust Hill Cemetery first disappeared from Trenton’s maps in 1905, its location alongside the Assunpink Creek rendered blank, with no hint of the Black citizens buried beneath the ground. For much of the next century, the city’s oldest and largest segregated cemetery served as an informal dumping ground, covered in coal ash and construction debris, neglected and nearly forgotten.
But on a recent summer day, Algernon Ward, wearing the navy wool uniform and cap of a Union soldier, gazed cheerfully across the site toward a cluster of American flags. The garbage was gone, the burial ground newly revealed and bound by a wrought-iron fence. Though what remains is simply a grassy field, Ward sees a reclamation that has rescued the stories of at least 178 people, including 10 Civil War veterans, buried long ago.
“They would have been lost — they were lost,” Ward says. “We’ve pulled them out of history.”
Two years ago, when the city of Trenton sought help leading the redevelopment of Locust Hill, Ward — a retired research scientist, proud graduate of Trenton State College, and passionate historical reenactor — quickly raised his hand. As president of the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops, he’d already dedicated years of his life to spotlighting Black history throughout the state; this was a chance to make a difference in his hometown.
Established in 1860 by the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Locust Hill Cemetery served as the city’s main burial ground for middle- and upper-class Black families for decades before falling into disrepair. Its significance stems not only from its use as a sacred space but from its very existence; establishing a formal cemetery was a critical civic achievement for Trenton’s Black community in the years after the Civil War.
The restoration is only the beginning of Ward’s expansive dreams for the land surrounding it. He envisions Locust Hill as a place where the past propels the neighborhood’s future and everyone is welcome: A building alongside the cemetery will become a museum, filled with artifacts and exhibits for historians and residents alike; a garden will introduce visitors to the area’s ecological history; and an amphitheater along the creek will host local performers and reenactments.
“It becomes the focal point; it becomes something around which we can build community,” he says. “That’s what’s happening here.”
Ward’s enthusiasm has been infectious, attracting a surge of support from local organizations, including the East Trenton Collaborative, the Trenton Kiwanis, and the William Trent House. For the past year, a steady stream of students and faculty from the science and humanities schools at The College of New Jersey have also road tripped to Trenton to help create detailed historical and ecological records of the site.
So far, this corner of the industrial city has revealed an abundance of biodiversity, from red-bellied woodpeckers and great blue herons to scud shrimp and iridescent damselflies skimming the creek’s surface. Ward describes the contribution from TCNJ as an essential component of his project, providing an academic foundation for ongoing studies that can cultivate a sense of curiosity and pride among Trenton’s next generation.
“If we can get young people excited about the ecological value of the place where they live, if they have a historical understanding of that place, they’re going to appreciate it more,” Ward says. “They’re going to begin to assume ownership of it: This is my street; this is my community; this is my creek; this is my history.”
With the college supporting Ward’s efforts, TCNJ students appreciate the value of their knowledge beyond the classroom. Saahil Patel ’23, a biology major, spent time at the site last year as part of ecology professor Janet Morrison’s Plants and People class.
“It’s not every day you hear you’re going to be working in a former graveyard doing ecological work,” he says.
Patel dodged poison ivy as he and other students scrambled through overgrown thickets between the creek and cemetery to collect specimens for a vegetation survey that will help identify native plants to include in future gardens; by the end of the day, he realized the impact would go beyond their report, increasing the community’s understanding of local ecology.
“Being a student, you sometimes become conditioned to only see what you’re learning through the scope of the very narrow confines of your subject,” he says. “But to actually see it in action and see the intersections it has with various facets of everyday real life is eye-opening.”
Ceramic and glass artifacts strewn across the surface of the site — discovered by students from George Leader’s archaeology course and TCNJ’s Anthropology Society — provided key evidence for Ward’s chronicle of the cemetery’s timeline; Heinz ketchup bottles, dating to around 1910 to 1920, pinpointed the period when the neglect of the area accelerated.
Trenton Historical Society President Damon Tvaryanas praised the widespread community participation in the project but said that without Ward’s leadership, the long-overdue restoration would likely not be underway.
“Algie has been the person singlehandedly behind this,” Tvaryanas says. “He’s brought a lot of people to bear in helping out, but it’s happening only because he has been in the background, nagging and herding people into pushing this project forward. This is his baby, and he’s done a great job in promoting it.”
Ward’s reclamation efforts are rooted in a fierce love of his hometown, where he grew up exploring the waterways and woods of the neighborhood.
“I was always down at the creeks catching frogs and crayfish and minnows,” he says. “It became a kind of passion.”
In high school, music temporarily replaced nature at the center of his life, as Ward became the trumpeter in a popular local band called The Meditators. He skipped math class to jam in the band room, believing his future lay onstage until a broken jaw forced a different path. He enrolled at Trenton State College and chose biology as his major.
It wasn’t until Ward was well into his career as a research scientist for the New Jersey Department of Health that he finally turned his attention to history; throughout his education, he’d found the subject dry, filled with too many dates and not enough stories in which he could recognize himself. But that changed when a friend invited him to the Civil War and Native American Museum in Hamilton, New Jersey, and he spotted photographs of Black soldiers.
“I was like, ‘Wait — there were Black soldiers in the Civil War?’” Ward says. “‘What?!’ I was fascinated.”
He began reading about these Union soldiers, many of whom came from the South Jersey area, and soon attended his first reenactment in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. As horses thundered across the field and soldiers launched into “battle,” Ward was enthralled.
“It was like walking into a time machine,” he says. “It was better than any movie you could ever see.”
Within hours, he’d marched over to a vendor selling uniforms. “I was in the battle by the end of the day.”
The experience marked a turning point in Ward’s life as he realized that too many people were unaware of the scope and significance of Black soldiers’ roles in the Civil War; according to the National Archives, by the end of the war, 179,000 Black men had served in the army, with an additional 19,000 serving in the navy.
“There were thousands of stories that needed to be told,” Ward says. “Once I realized that, I knew it was beyond a hobby. It was passing on vital information. When you realize your ancestors fought in a civil war, that they were decorated heroes, it makes you stand up straighter. It changes your perspective. So reenactment is not a hobby for me. It’s a mission.”
Since co-founding the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops in 2001, Ward has traveled to events and parades up and down the East Coast, and even marched in President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
His deep belief in the power of these stories is why Ward frequently arrives at the Locust Hill Cemetery in his regiment uniform. When he hosts visitors, he is not only the project’s leader but a reminder of history too often overlooked.
And so, on a recent summer day, despite the heat, Ward could be found at the edge of the Assunpink, slipping a goose feather into the brim of his wool cap as TCNJ biology students cast buckets into the water. The data gathered at Locust Hill by faculty and students — recording everything from the fish in the creek to the birds overhead — has laid the foundation for long-term studies of the site’s ecosystem as the cemetery and surrounding land is restored.
Biology professor Matthew Wund says the opportunity for students to meet Ward is as valuable as their exposure to fieldwork.
“Students are often asking, ‘What am I going to be?’” Wund says. “Algie spent his career as a chemist and scientist, and they can see him as a role model. They don’t have to be just one thing in their lives. They’re not just defined by their careers. They can impact their local and global communities in many ways.”
There is much more to be done at Locust Hill. Ward is chasing grants to support the museum’s development and gathering documents to secure the site’s designation in the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. But in the meantime, he has built a presence in the neighborhood, he hosted a graduation barbecue for local students in June, and assembles the 6th Regiment each Sunday morning to practice drills in the cemetery.
Sometimes children gather to watch, and Ward welcomes them to the formation. He hopes they will one day continue the work he has begun at Locust Hill, an effort that may yet serve as an anchor for East Trenton.
“It will mean I have done something that would last beyond me,” he says. “I will have played a part in the uplifting of my community.”
Picture: Peter Murphy