Mayor Kenney references Starbucks arrests at ceremony honoring African American Civil War troops

A bagpiper leads Martin Luther King High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Cadets and others in a procession through the Philadelphia National Cemetery for the dedication of a new storyboard honoring the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).

On a day when 300 people gathered at Philadelphia National Cemetery to honor the black Civil War soldiers buried there, Mayor Kenney, a guest speaker at the event, lamented the lingering ill will that caused the troops’ sacrifice to be forgotten.

Strains of the racial animus that relegated the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) to a place in the shadows behind others who served still infects the nation, the mayor said Saturday, even surfacing earlier this month at a Starbucks coffee shop near Rittenhouse Square.

“The residual effects of that mind-set are still in the DNA of this country,” Kenney said, “and we have to figure out a way to change it.”

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
The new storyboard honoring the African American Civil War Veterans buried at Philadelphia National Cemetery in West Oak Lane.

The mayor linked the ceremony to recognize the contributions of the USCT and the scandal involving the Starbucks arrests on April 12 of two African American men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson,  in an interview during the dedication of a storyboard at the 156-year-old veterans cemetery in West Oak Lane. The arrests were captured on a video by a customer at the coffee shop at 18th and Spruce Streets that went viral and sparked national outrage.

The 2-by-3-foot polymer monument that tells the story of the USCT was unveiled Saturday in an observance that community activists described as long overdue. The storyboard is one of three now installed at Philadelphia National, where at least 350 USCT who fought in the Civil War and trained at Camp William Penn in Cheltenham are buried.

At the ceremony Saturday, local officials, veterans, historians, and reenactors paid tribute to the black Civil War troops in a 90-minute observance that included military pomp courtesy of a color guard unit from Martin Luther King High School, patriotic songs by the Intermezzo Choir Ministry, and music by the Doane Academy Band of Burlington, N.J.

“I am overwhelmed. This [ceremony] feels like divine providence,” said historian Charles Blockson, curator emeritus of the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. Blockson’s great-great-granduncle Benjamin Blockson, a private in the USCT, is buried in the cemetery.

The dedication was the culmination of a four-year effort started by history buff Ed McLaughlin, a veteran and retired satellite designer for Lockheed Martin. The Flourtown resident had visited the cemetery for years, wondering why he was often the only one walking the grounds of what he called a “historical treasure.”

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Charles L. Blockson speaks to the crowd at the dedication ceremony for the new storyboard at Philadelphia National Cemetery.

McLaughlin vowed to help raise the profile of the cemetery and the Civil War troops buried in it. First up, lobby the VA National Cemetery Administration for a storyboard like the one dedicated to the 184 Confederate soldiers buried at Philadelphia National who had been wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg and died in area hospitals.

McLaughlin began lobbying the cemetery administration, joining forces with veterans organizations, reenactors, historians, museum officials, and community groups, including the Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott, a preservation group that runs the Camp William Penn Museum in Elkins Park.

After an intensive letter-writing campaign, officials of the VA agreed to add the storyboard. Members of the lobbying group, including Robert Hicks, director of the Mutter Museum, helped write the copy and design the small monument.

Kenney told the group gathered Saturday that he was saddened that the USCT had to wait so long for recognition. Irv Brockington, a commissioner in Cheltenham Township, talked about discrimination faced by the soldiers and other blacks. He also made a passing reference to the Starbucks arrests.

Camera icon SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Civil War reenactors shoot guns into the air at dedication ceremony for a new storyboard at the Philadelphia National Cemetery.

“In 1867, the laws changed allowing Negroes to have the right to ride in public streetcars – and maybe sit inside a Starbucks,” Brockington said to shouts of affirmation from the crowd.

Kenney called a planned 3 p.m. demonstration Sunday at the Starbucks where Nelson and Robinson were arrested, organized by Omega Psi Phi, Nelson’s fraternity, an understandable product of what the mayor described as an “unfair situation.”

“We have to keep educating people that we are all human beings, people who live in a democracy and should be able to share the same space,” he said in an interview at the cemetery, adding that learning about heroes such as the USCT is a good place for youngsters to start.