BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — A small patch of land located off a dirt road and known as the Barnegat Hill Cemetery is a large part of this community’s African-American heritage.
A small group of predominantly black parishioners from Mount Zion Baptist Church is trying to do whatever it can to preserve that heritage.
The Rev. Richard Bell of the Mount Zion Baptist Church on Gunning River Road said he is working to keep the cemetery preserved and maintained. In 1931, construction started on the small white building that is now Mount Zion Baptist Church and was completed in 1934. Bell said many of Mount Zion’s past parishioners are buried in the cemetery.
Bell said the cemetery was founded in 1924 as the Rosehill Cemetery and was later named Barnegat Hill Cemetery. A new portion of the cemetery was added in 1984. A church that had a black congregation was also located on Rosehill Road near the cemetery, but it was destroyed by fire in the 1950s.
The majority of the African-American community in the township has lived on Gunning River Road and on Rosehill Road, Bell said. The cemetery, which for many years was deep in the woods, has now been exposed because of development in the township.
“It was the only place in Barnegat where a black person could be buried. Black people were not allowed to be buried alongside white people at the time,” Bell said.
Mayor Jeffrey Melchiondo said the caretakers have had difficulty raising funds to keep the cemetery in good shape. The back of the cemetery borders township-owned property, Melchiondo said.
“I strongly agree with the representatives of the cemetery and the church that this is something that should be preserved as part of their heritage and the benefit of the rest of the community. It’s a large part of Barnegat’s history,” he said.
The headstones in the cemetery are modest and overgrown with brush and grass. The unkempt grass is interrupted by patches of sandy soil. Some of the headstones are handcarved pieces of rock, many with illegible inscriptions. One headstone of an unnamed woman reads: “Phillip King’s Wife, Born 1872, Died 1944.”
“But still, a lot of the headstones say ‘unknown,’” Bell said.
He said about 100 people are buried in the cemetery, and the names of about 80 of the dead who are known are included on a sign at the cemetery.
A chain-link fence installed a few years ago corrals the small cemetery, which is less than an acre. The fence was installed after money was raised by former groundskeeper Gregory Ronan, Bell said. But since Ronan died, the upkeep of the cemetery has again fallen by the wayside, Bell said.
“We want to go in there and plant flowers and keep it clean and the grass groomed. We have had problems with vandalism,” he said.
But uncovering the history of the cemetery and the black community’s roots in the township has proved to be a daunting task, Bell said.
“It was hard to find anything about the blacks in Barnegat. Even the history itself is nothing. All of the information I have found would fit under a thumbnail,” he said.
Bell said the black community has been thriving since the late 1800s when African-Americans began moving into the township. Bell read from a copy of a 1930 census that counted 32 black residents in the township.
In 2000, following the completion of the U.S. census, the Ocean County Library released a report saying that Barnegat has the largest minority population in the southern region of Ocean County. The Barnegat branch of the Ocean County Library also serves a black community that is more than twice the size of the black communities served by the other branches in the region, the report found.
The 2010 census reported the township’s black population as 681 residents, a 100 percent increase over the black population of 338 in 2000.
“Things have changed on Rosehill Road. But on Gunning River Road, the black community is still thriving. Some of the people there have been there since the 1940s,” Bell said.
But Bell said in those days, Barnegat Township was a prejudiced place.
“Back then when everything was going on, blacks were just there and at one time it was a very prejudiced area. There was a Ku Klux Klan presence. Thank God things have changed 100 percent. We have come a long way,” he said.
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