Slaves turned Civil War heroes honored in Westampton Jeannie O'Sullivan: 609-871-8068;
WESTAMPTON — There are only 11 gravestones in the tiny cemetery at the end of Church Street, but the plot is the final resting ground for an estimated 100 people who rose up from slavery and formed a community known as Timbuctoo.Those who went on to serve in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War were honored Sunday during a Memorial Day weekend tribute to Timbuctoo, the site in the township where freed slaves established a haven in the 1820s.Not all of the graves have headstones because an actual cairn was more of an afterthought for the African-American community, which considered the entire graveyard to be a spiritual place.“The graveyard is where our ancestors are, it’s where our stories are. Our grandparents used to come to graveyards especially on Memorial Day,” said Joe Becton, a guide who led cemetery tours and re-enactments at the event.The community’s near and far past were highlighted for dozens of history buffs who turned out for the event, which was hosted by the township and the Timbuctoo Discovery Project Committee. The festivities included a color guard presentation by American Legion Post 509 and by choir members of Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which is said to have been founded in Timbuctoo in 1845.The rich history of the site has intrigued historians, archeologists and Mayor Sidney Camp, who said he scoured the Internet for information about Timbuctoo and worked to have it preserved in perpetuity by easement. He said the place is one of the township’s most treasured historic locations.“On a bad day, I would literally just come out here in the afternoon and just stand. There was a sereneness to just standing here and knowing what history lies here,” said Camp.Believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, the pre-Civil War settlement consisted of the church, the cemetery and a nearly circular formation of houses. One of the legends attached to the area is that of Perry Simmons, a fugitive slave who avoided capture from a Southern slave catcher with the help of the town's residents. The townspeople fought off intruders in what was known as the Battle of Pine Swamp. In detailing Simmons’ tale, historian Paul W. Schopp described the slave’s ordeal in patriotic terms.“Though he never wore the uniform, Perry Simmons most assuredly stood on the front line in the battle to end slavery in this nation,” Schopp said.An excavation of the site led by Temple University last year unearthed 15,000 artifacts, such as peanut butter jars, a toy train, pottery, and an 1864 penny. An “archeological triumph” is how anthropology professor David Orr describes the 4-acre site that he said he first saw 25 years ago. On Sunday, he told the crowd that a house recently excavated on the site was built in the 1830s or 1840s and was home to a soldier who is buried just yards away in the cemetery. “That to me is proximity that can be measured with the heart, not meters,” Orr said.
The Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church of Burlington Choir (Founded, Timbuctoo, 1845), performs during a tribute to the Civil War veterans of Timbuctoo, at the Timbuctoo Cemetery in Westampton.