If the rocks could cry out on a hill off Old Marple Road, the stories would go back to the 1830s.

That is when a tiny church of free blacks began burying the dead on the slopes beneath it, using stones from a nearby quarry to mark the graves.

That small cemetery in Marple Township, with about 100 graves, still sits near an overpass of the Blue Route, though abandoned and covered with brush.

The Hayti Cemetery (pronounced Hay-tie), which shares a name with the neighborhood around it, is in need of care and attention, and a local historian intends to provide it.

Rich Paul, chairman of the Heritage Commission of Delaware County, is in the early stages of a plan to mobilize the nearby community to clean up a cemetery where headstones have been toppled and graves have been robbed.

"I just don't think a cemetery should be abandoned," said Paul, 71, of Marple Township. "There are Civil War veterans there that have no recognition."

Paul, who is also an official of the Marple Township Historical Society, first heard about the cemetery 20 years ago, when local historian Hilda Lucas told him about the small surrounding community of free blacks who worked in the mills and on farms before the Civil War.

The graveyard was part of the Hayti church, which was founded in 1839, said Joseph Edgette, a folklorist and professor emeritus from Widener University in Chester. Edgette studied Hayti Cemetery as part of his doctoral dissertation.

The Rev. Charles Brown and his wife, Maria, started the congregation after purchasing a small patch of land in 1839, said Odessa Whitfield of Upper Providence, a member of Trinity U.A.M.E. Church in Media, which evolved out of the original congregation.

Church members built a small wood-frame house of worship that was on top of the hill, and eventually began burying members down the incline. Edgette believes the church community was involved in the Underground Railroad.

In 1864, the church burned down. Members then built another church at the base of the hill, but that building also burned to the ground.

The church, by then called the Union A.M.E. Church of Marple, moved to Olive Street in Media in 1892. That church later became Trinity U.A.M.E., which is still on Olive Street.

Over the years, the cemetery was left behind. The last burial was likely in the 1930s.

The current property owner is unclear. The state Department of Transportation purchased a portion of the old church's land for a Blue Route on-ramp, but that didn't include the cemetery, PennDot officials said. Trinity still owns at least a portion of the original congregation's land, and that may include the cemetery, said longtime member Frank Whitfield, Odessa Whitfield's husband.

The bumpy, tree-dotted incline is overrun by broken branches and weeds. Few headstones remain, and few of those are legible. Some lie flat on the ground or against trees.

The remains of "Father Isaac Green" are buried in a grave that has sunken around a tilted headstone. Several members of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War also are buried on the grounds.

Most of the graves are marked by simple stones gathered from a nearby quarry, Edgette said.

"Grave markers were expensive, and you had to pay by the letter," Edgette said. "So members of the church would just get a big stone and put it on the grave. They knew who was buried where. But as time passed, the information got lost."

Hayti Cemetery has not been without its champions and caretakers.

Lucas and Clarissa Smith, another local historian, both now deceased, chronicled the cemetery's history.

For many years before his death, Jim Gallagher, a military veteran from Newtown Square, climbed the hill with a Boy Scout troop or fellow veterans to place flags on the graves for Memorial Day.

"I've been on my knees pulling up weeds," said Delaware County Court Judge Barry Dozor, a former Marple Township commissioner. The cemetery "needs to be honored and protected and reasonably cared for. But, frankly, when people find out about it, it becomes the subject of vandalism. It's tragic."

Ironically, Dozor says, the broken branches and overgrown weeds keep the cemetery out of sight and "protected" from thieves who have taken the stones or dug up graves in search of artifacts.

Paul said that come this fall, he plans to help clean away that brush. Groups including Squadron 104 of the Civil Air Patrol in Northeast Philadelphia and the U.S. Colored Troops Headstone Project hope to be involved. A planned spring cleanup was postponed until later in the year, after the leaves on the hill's trees have fallen.

In the future, Paul said, he would like to begin the process of applying for a historic marker. But first, there's the cleanup.

"It's terrible when a cemetery is let go," Paul said. "People are buried there. Troops that served our country are there. They deserve better."

kholmes@phillynews.com

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