Memorial Park in the peaceful central Pennsylvania town of Carlisle is just one example of the tragic fate of many African American burial grounds. The site of this park was once the Lincoln Cemetery. It was used by the African American community between 1840 and the early 1900s. While the number of burials is not known, they probably numbered in the hundreds including 35 former United States Colored Troops (USCT) veterans.
In 1971, the Lincoln Cemetery had fallen into disuse and was seemingly abandoned. The Borough of Carlisle, under pressure to provide more recreational opportunities for under-served neighborhoods, proposed to create a recreational park on the site. The Borough applied to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for grant assistance and received two grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund – one for planning and another for construction of a park. Despite some controversy, the grant project went forward. The headstones were removed by the Borough, and their whereabouts are still unknown. None of the burials were moved and remain in the ground underneath the park. The final park design moved the playground to the edge of the site and today features some landscaping, a sitting area, and walking path. All that marks the site’s former status as a cemetery is a memorial plaque and one headstone whose family fought to maintain it on the site.
But the memory of what was once there still remained as a point of concern in the primarily African American neighborhoods that surrounds the park. Recently, the Cumberland County Historical Society located in Carlisle, with financial assistance from the Heart and Soul Project, announced that they will try and identify the names of the people buried at the site. They are also looking at ways to reinterpret the park as hallowed ground that respects the dead and not just as a recreational site.
‘Memorial Park’ is just one of many examples of why the proposed African American Burial Grounds Network legislation is so needed. While it is to be hoped that today, no local, state or federal grant administrator would have proceeded with this project, it does illustrate powerful lessons. As citizens and heritage professionals, we need to carefully read the landscape and be aware of the special challenges in conserving African American sites and cemeteries. This also demonstrates how critical it is to engage in a deep and respectful way with the affected community. Building awareness and witnessing to past events is the first step.
There is a powerful video created by a Dickinson College student that narrates the story of one USCT veteran who was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery.