Want to participate in a civic pride community service project?
The Belleville Historical Society is seeking volunteers to help clean up the cemetery at the former Dutch Reformed Church on Rutgers St. this Saturday, April 2, and next Saturday, April 9, for an upcoming commemorative event.
Michael Perrone, president of the society, said the cleanup activity will proceed each day, from about 9 a.m. to around 3 p.m.
“If they can, people should bring their own rakes to sweep up the leaves in the cemetery grounds, if they can, since our supplies are limited,” Perrone said.
The cemetery contains the graves of more than 60 Revolutionary War soldiers and noted historical figures from that era.
Perrone said the society, which typically pitches in to spruce up the area on the lead-up to the Independence Day holiday, wants to get a “head-start” now for several reasons.
In a vault below the church, he said, there are the remains of a number of Chinese immigrants who, during the late 1800s, lived and worked in Belleville and worshiped at the then-Dutch Reformed Church, now occupied by La Senda Antigua, an Hispanic Pentecostal church.
At the time, despite the then-repressive American policy on Asian immigration, Belleville was considered a sort of refuge for Chinese people living in the U.S. and a place where the Chinese were permitted to engage in public celebrations of the Chinese New Year by setting off fireworks within the township.
“April 3rd and 4th is the traditional Chinese Memorial Day and that’s a time when the Chinese visit the graves of their relatives,” Perrone said.
Perrone has met with representatives of the Chinese Consul General’s Office from New York and of the New Jersey Chinese American Association in Belleville and has sparked their interest in the site.
He said the society is working on creating a monument to memorialize the Chinese buried below the church.
Meanwhile, Perrone said the society is “discussing organizing a ceremony for April 10 at the cemetery to pay tribute to the dead and to Belleville serving as “home to the first Chinese community in the eastern United States.”
To that end, the society has secured a reproduction of a three-sided 1869 Quing Dynasty flag with dragon logo which, according to Perrone, “was flown in Belleville from 1870 to 1887 by Belleville’s Chinese immigrants.”
“We hope to have it displayed at the April 10 event,” he added.
Another activity associated with the Chinese observance of their traditional Memorial Day, Perrone said, is kite-flying so, as part of the April 10 ceremonies, the society is exploring the possibility of using the Belleville High football stadium complex for that purpose, assuming cooperation by the Belleville Board of Education.