Mina Cockroft can't wait for the day when Historic Eden Cemetery has the prominence she says the people buried on its 53 acres deserve.
The Collingdale cemetery is the final resting place for a host of Philadelphia luminaries. William Still, an abolitionist known as the father of the Underground Railroad, is buried within walking distance of famed opera singer Marian Anderson and not far from Julian Abele, an architect who had a prominent role in designing the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Yet, the cemetery founded to give African Americans a place to bury their dead is just getting by, says Cockroft, Eden's general manager. Finances and space are getting tighter, and officials are considering how to turn Eden into more than just a burial ground.
"It's important because of the individuals who are interred here, and their contributions to [African American] culture and society and what they did for our culture and society as a whole," Cockroft said.
To honor that, cemetery officials are embarking on a campaign to transform Eden into a paradise for history lovers, similar to what has been done at the famed Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. They plan to promote the historic value of the cemetery, lobby for financial support, and increase tours and special events.
Already this year, the cemetery has hosted an observance of the 100th anniversary of the death of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet, abolitionist, and suffragette. Harper refused to give up her seat on a horse-drawn trolley in Philadelphia, in the way that Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus nearly a century later.
Cemetery officials also have scheduled a Memorial Day parade; Civil War tours; community cleanups; the filming of a documentary about Eden; and the campaign's first big fund-raiser, a masquerade ball during which guests must dress up as someone buried at the cemetery.
"Eden is a pantheon to Philadelphia history," said Thomas H. Keels, author of Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries. "I'm hoping Eden can work with other cemeteries to help develop historical programs in addition to what they have and emphasize their historical importance to Philadelphia."
It won't be easy, Cockroft said. The cemetery is facing many of the same challenges that others in the industry are facing in a troubled economy.
Income for cemeteries has fallen, in part because more families are choosing cremation over more elaborate burials, said David Heisterkamp, president of the Pennsylvania Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association.
Cockroft says Eden's finances have also been hard hit by a decline in new-grave purchases. She attributes that not only to cremation but also to a lack of effective marketing of the cemetery and the lingering effects of integration.
The deceased love ones of African American families are no longer barred from white cemeteries. That means more competition for what historically has been Eden's primary customer base.
The decline in revenue makes it increasingly difficult for Eden to market the cemetery and maintain the grounds in a way that keeps it competitive with other cemeteries, said the Rev. Albert Campbell, chairman of Eden's board of directors.
Space also might soon become an issue at Eden. There is room for 500 more graves. In the last five years, cemetery officials have sold 50 to 75 new graves annually. At that rate, the cemetery could be filled in 10 years. More than 90,000 people are already buried there. The cemetery has room to expand elsewhere on its property, but that depends on whether there is demand, Cockroft said. That shrinking space as a cemetery is part of the reason that transforming Eden into a place for visitors interested in its historic pedigree is so important, she said.
The cemetery was founded in 1902 by Jerome Bacon, a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Bacon led the effort to acquire the land for a cemetery after Philadelphia officials began condemning African American cemeteries to make way for municipal improvements.
Over the years, the remains of people buried in city cemeteries that were closed were later moved to Eden, including 19th-century civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto and hundreds of black veterans who fought in the Civil War.
Despite Eden's history - the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December - the burial ground has not always been the object of respect.
In 2008, vandals overturned more than 200 headstones. Stones have been spray-painted, and some residents walk their dogs on the property. An effort to raise money for a new fence stalled after $8,000 was donated - the cemetery's small, aging staff of five workers, most of them part-time, could not continue the effort.
But cemetery officials hope this new campaign will encourage more community members, government officials, charities, and foundations to become involved.
State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D., Phila.) has joined the effort. He is hoping to generate state funding to aid the cemetery and is assisting in developing a comprehensive plan to revitalize Eden. Hughes' father, James, is buried at the cemetery and served on its board of directors.
In the meantime, Cockroft and the cemetery's staff and supporters will continue planning events to raise the cemetery's profile as both a historic destination and a place to bury the dead.
"There may be some cemeteries that have better curb appeal," Cockroft said. "But nowhere will you find this kind of history."
Notables Buried at Eden
Julian Abele (1881-1950), architect who designed or contributed to the design of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Widener Library at Harvard University.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993), opera singer who performed a historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Reginald Bryant (1940-2010), reporter, radio personality, television producer, and a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871), civil rights activist, athlete, and educator who was shot and killed on South Street on Election Day.
Tyrone Everett (1953–1977), professional boxer from Philadelphia known as "The Mean Machine."
Stanislaus K. Govern (1854-1924), athlete, actor, labor organizer, and manager of the Cuban Giants, the first African American professional baseball team.
Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911), abolitionist, lecturer, women's rights activist, and author of the poem "Bury Me in a Free Land."
Christopher J. Perry Sr. (1884-1921), founder of the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation's oldest African American newspaper.
William Still (1821-1902), abolitionist, author, and conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped slaves seeking freedom escape from the South.
John B. Taylor Jr. (1882-1908), track-and-field athlete and the first African American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.