Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pennsylvania’s forgotten African American cemeteries are getting their historical due

Statewide preservation projects will create a digital archive of Pennsylvania's African American cemeteries and help get them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Crystal Crampton, right, and Abbie Kessler, preservation director at the Land Conservancy of Southern Chester County, walk through the Historic Bucktoe Cemetery in Kennett, Pa.  Both women are part of a team working to preserve the African American cemetery that dates back to the early 1800s.
Crystal Crampton, right, and Abbie Kessler, preservation director at the Land Conservancy of Southern Chester County, walk through the Historic Bucktoe Cemetery in Kennett, Pa. Both women are part of a team working to preserve the African American cemetery that dates back to the early 1800s.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

To Crystal Crampton, the empty spaces that separate dates of birth and death on headstones at Historic Bucktoe Cemetery in New Garden Township represent the forgotten life stories of those interred there.

Beginning in the early 1800s, the New Garden Township graveyard took in 122 African American occupants before it was abandoned a century later. Their descendants drifted away. And the church that had sat guard over the burial ground, New Garden Memorial U.A.M.E., moved on, too, building a new house of worship in a nearby Chester County borough.

But Crampton, who grew up in the church, did not turn her back on Bucktoe. Thirty years ago, she surveyed the brush-choked acre dotted with headstones, and vowed "to make it pretty." She started by swinging a machete at the weeds.

Today, the 49-year-old nanny and chef from Middletown, Del., is among uncounted volunteer caretakers of African American cemeteries across the country. For those struggling to preserve not only the sites, but also the history they hold, it is an often lonely avocation.

However, two new statewide projects are bolstering their mission.

The Pennsylvania African American Documentation Project is creating a digital database of every African American cemetery in the state, from single plots to the resting places of hundreds, with GPS coordinates, tax parcel numbers, and photos.

Another initiative, by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is aiming to put more black history-related sites on the National Register of Historic Places; it will initially focus on churches and cemeteries.

The Documentation Project is led by Steven Burg, a history professor at Shippensburg University, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project, a Beaver County-based advocacy group for cemeteries where black veterans are buried, as well as other African American burial grounds.

"We also want to support the caretakers, so they don't feel as abandoned as the cemeteries they are fighting to preserve," said Barbara Barksdale, Hallowed Grounds' chairwoman, who has worked for 28 years to preserve Midland Cemetery in Swatara Township, near Harrisburg.

The state's office of historic preservation keeps a database of cultural resources that federally funded construction projects should avoid "negatively impacting," according to Burg. The cemetery list, which he expects to be available early next year, is likely to be added to it, he said.

"If people are building a highway or an apartment building or need federal money in any way, they will not be able to say they didn't know there was an African American cemetery there," he said. "No one will be able to say they didn't know."

>> READ MORE: Oldest African American graveyard lies beneath proposed apartments

In 2016, workers building apartments at Second and Arch Streets found human bones from the old burial ground of First Baptist Church, leading to the exhumation of the remains of more than 400 people. In February, the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, frustrated with the careless handling of cemeteries, published an interactive map of scores of city graveyards.

So far, Burg and his team of three graduate students have identified 151 Pennsylvania sites, with an additional 73 pending.

"We know we will continue to find cemeteries into perpetuity," he said. "I don't think we'll ever be done."

Burg is part of a group working to preserve the Locust Grove Cemetery in Shippensburg, a historic black burial ground that includes the graves of 47 veterans who served in every major conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam.

That cemetery will be the test case for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's effort to increase the number of African American-associated sites on the National Register of Historic Places, a federal list of sites worthy of preservation, administered by the National Parks Service.

The commission, also in partnership with the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project, is developing a website and a form that will help demystify and simplify the National Register's application process, which is dauntingly complicated, said Shelby Weaver Splain, education and outreach coordinator. The project received $30,000 from the Parks Service's Underrepresented Communities grant program.

More than 94,000 properties are listed in the National Register. In Pennsylvania, only 33 of the state's 3,700 National Register listings are associated with African American history — "an incredibly small number when you consider the size of the state," Splain said. They include Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (also designated a National Historic Landmark) and the former residences of entertainers/activists Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, all in Philadelphia, as well as the site of the former Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital in Coatesville. Historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, where Anderson is buried, is one of the African American cemeteries on the National Register.

When the commission finishes its work, it will reach out to organizations, government officials, churches, and preservationists to spread the word.

That is welcome news for Crystal Crampton and other cemetery caretakers who gathered in October at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project at Mount Zion A.M. E Church in Devon. It is on the National Register for its role in the "School Fight," the African American community's battle against segregation in the Tredyffrin and Easttown schools in the 1930s. Getting on the list was a six-year process for the church's historian, Bertha Jackmon.

>>READ MORE: What ails Philadelphia's oversight of buried treasurers.

In the city of Lancaster, Gordon Reed and Leroy Hopkins, of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania (which includes Chester County), are working to gain historical recognition for the 112-year-old Stevens-Greenland Cemetery, which occupies three acres in a county with at least 14 African American cemeteries.

Rich Paul, chairman of the Heritage Commission of Marple Township, would be satisfied with a long-term maintenance commitment from municipal officials for Hayti Cemetery, which is on a hill under a Delaware County exit from the Blue Route and dates to the mid-1800s.

Crampton has been pressing Bucktoe's case with a group of cemetery supporters on and off since 1999, and now has enlisted the aid of the Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County to preserve the site and secure historical recognition. Placement on the national list would be gratifying. Until then, they will continue collecting information about the graveyard, which sits in the midst of Underground Railroad territory and where Civil War soldiers rest, and they will share its history with visitors wandering through.

It is history you can “touch, feel and see, about people who paved the way for us,” Crampton said. “Their stories need to be told.”