I like to think that once upon a time our cemeteries were inviolate landscapes cared for by the communities who created them. They did not have to be not classified as historic preservation projects or land conservation initiatives or tourism opportunities. But I have learned that many burial sites fall between the cracks of all such efforts both incremental and intentional. Rural cemeteries are abandoned as populations shift and families move on to new opportunities. Urban cemeteries fall victim to changing land use and financial downturns.
African-American cemeteries are particularly vulnerable. Recent experiences in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania illustrate the challenges. In the run up to the 150th Anniversary of the Battle Of Gettysburg, Lenwood Sloan, then Director of Heritage and Cultural Tourism, kicked off a series of innovative projects to tell a more inclusive story of the state’s Civil War history. The work started by conserving and researching the 97 United States Colored Troops (USCT) military muster rolls that were located in the Pennsylvania Archives. Of the eight thousand USCT who served in Pennsylvania regiments, the muster rolls documented those who survived. The tourism office then selected 100 African American Civil War veterans who were from Pennsylvania for further research and interpretation. The research tracked down and documented forty-two cemeteries across the commonwealth where USCT veterans were interred.
This is where the story of the Pennsylvania (PA) Hallowed Ground begins. In seeking out these cemeteries, the tourism office found that some had become overgrown and forgotten; others were being cared for by stewards who were growing older and were seeking the next generation of caretakers. In an effort to help, the office sent out teams to assess the conditions of the burial sites and began to link the community of caretakers. They offered genealogical workshops and specialty tours and voluntourism programs. However, just as the program began to pick up steam a change in the Governor’s office in 2010 brought changes to the tourism office’s priorities. The state’s Visit PA web site still list some of these sites like the Lincoln Cemetery in Penbrook near the State’s Capitol of Harrisburg as places to visit. But today, there is no state program to help coordinate visitation or support the site’s caretakers. Many of the web links are now just dead ends.
But for the cemetery caretakers the work goes on. Leaders such Barbara Barksdale at the Midland Cemetery in Steelton continues her over two decades of regular site maintenance with helpers as disparate as the work release crew from the county prison to the wrestling team at a local college. The VFW Post in Mechanicsburg still holds work parties at the Lincoln Colored Cemetery in a farm field in Lower Allen Township. The local United Way’s provides volunteers for cemtery clean ups through the annual Day of Caring. Recently a small group of volunteers, who have dubbed themselves the PA Hallowed Ground project, have received a modest grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for an annual gathering for the caretakers and a few hands on workshops. They continue to seek opportunities to keep the community together.
There is so much still to learn from PA’s Hallowed Ground. The fact that the USCT veterans were laid to rest in segregated burial grounds in the state where they served, that such cemeteries were often unincorporated places where even today ownership is unclear, that there are veterans from many conflicts honored at these sites, and that there are still places to discover and protect. However, the most important lesson is this – dedicated and caring people are still hard at work tending some of the nation’s most sacred places. And doing so, as Lenwood Sloane says “with their hands in the earth and their hands on their hearts’.
Despite all odds this is a landscapes of hope.