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His turn: Black pioneer, cemetery founder, finally honored

In his own right, John C. Asbury deserved a place in the spotlight as a distinguished African American lawyer and state representative in early 20th Century Pennsylvania.

In his own right, John C. Asbury deserved a place in the spotlight as a distinguished African American lawyer and state representative in early 20th Century Pennsylvania.

Yet his fame has been overshadowed by the likes of singer Marian Anderson, activist Octavius Catto and composer Charles Albert Tindley - all of whom came to be buried at the Historic Eden Cemetery that he co-founded.

But on Thursday both Asbury and the Collingdale, Delaware County, cemetery he co-founded finally were honored in separate ceremonies for their significance in U.S. history.

A state historic marker was unveiled outside Asbury's South Philadelphia home, and a steel bench was dedicated at the 112-year-old cemetery.

"He was the most prominent African American politician in Pennsylvania in the first half of the 20th Century," said Richard Sand, of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission during a morning ceremony at 1710 Christian St.

Asbury, who died in 1941 and is buried at the cemetery, introduced a civil rights bill into the state legislature in 1921. It was passed by the House, but died in the Senate.

He is a founder of Mercy Hospital, in Philadelphia; the Christian Street YMCA, and joined with four others to establish the cemetery as a place where African Americans excluded from other burial grounds would have a final resting place.

"He did so much for us, and nobody knows him," said Joyce Haywardo, 77, a retired marketing manager for AT&T who now lives in the former Asbury home.

Haywardo moved into the house over 30 years ago and was told by neighbors that the couple who once lived there were "bigwigs." So Haywardo began to do research.

She learned of the accomplishments of Asbury and his wife, Ida Bowser Asbury, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2009, Haywardo began the process of applying to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for a historic marker. After several revisions to the application – and the help of historian Francis Ryan, of Rutgers University -- the marker was approved.

Haywardo hosted the short ceremony Wednesday morning and then dashed to the cemetery for the afternoon proceedings.

At Historic Eden, Asbury, his co-founders, and the cemetery they established were recognized by the Toni Morrison Society, an international nonprofit that encourages scholarly study and discussion of the Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author's work.

The society dedicated what the organization calls "a bench by the road," at the cemetery. It is a society initiative rooted in a 1989 interview during which Morrison lamented the lack of historic markers commemoration the lives of slaves.

"There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road," Morrison said at the time.

The society has placed 11 of the 6-foot-long, 26-inch-deep black steel benches at historic locations around the world, including Sullivan's Island, S.C., where 40 percent of African slaves disembarked to be sold in North America.

"Eden is a no-brainer as a way to honor the memory of African American History -- the triumphant and tragic stories, and trying to uncover lost history as well," said Craig Stutman, an assistant professor of history at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown and a member of the society.

Others buried at the cemetery include architect Julian Abele, who designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art, abolitionist William Still, and women's rights activist Frances E.W. Harper.

The bench is the first step in an effort to establish a memorial garden and education center on a landing in the cemetery.

The bench is place where visitors can sit and think about the history they are surrounded by, said Carolyn Denard, dean of Connecticut College and the society's founder and board chair.

"This is no longer a place of exile...," Denard said. "It's a place that holds our best and brightest."