a collage of photographs showing people out working in cemeteries
Top left: Consultant Patricia Davenport-Jacobs of Terracon and steward Harriet Gaston at Eastern Light Cemetery. Top right: Consultant Jason Harpe of Richard Grubb & Associates meets with Mike Rideout of Mt. Vernon/Lebanon Cemetery and Mindy Crawford of Preservation PA. Bottom left: Rachel Kerri Williams of SavingOurAncestorsLegacy (SOAL) gives a tour of Lincoln Cemetery to Jason Harpe, Mindy Crawford, and Barbara Barksdale of PA Hallowed Grounds. Bottom right: Dan Flickinger of Friends of African Union Church of South Coventry (FAUSCS) meets with consultant Kristin Cardi of Heritage Conservation Collective.

by Charlotte Stone

The African American Cemetery Stewardship Program is a collaboration by Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds (PAHG) and Preservation Pennsylvania to ensure the protection and preservation of African American cemeteries and burial grounds across Pennsylvania. This grant-funded program was created to directly address and reduce the structural barriers faced by the cemetery group volunteers. One of the challenges facing these preservation efforts is that many of the cemetery groups are not incorporated as non-profits and, without this designation, are ineligible for most funding opportunities and must secure generous, but perhaps inconsistent, donations of time and materials. Instead, this program intentionally includes groups that do not fit into the traditional funding model and embraces trust, cooperation, and accountability, increasing access to much needed resources. In 2022, they initiated a pilot project in which three cemeteries received a comprehensive preservation plan and a small grant for a volunteer project. The success of the project served as a catalyst to launch the full-scale program the following year. (The pilot project was funded by Heritage PA, financed by a grant from the Community Conservation Partnerships Program, the Heritage Areas Program under the administration of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation.) The success of the pilot served as a catalyst to launch the full-scale program the following year, funded by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) through the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) with support from The JPB Foundation and The 1772 Foundation.

About the African American Cemetery Stewardship Program

In June 2023, PAHG and Preservation Pennsylvania announced grants to 13 cemeteries in 10 counties throughout Pennsylvania. Eight of these cemeteries received preservation plan grants, which provided professional consultants who visited the site, reviewed documentation, and spoke with stewards to identify and develop an actionable, site-specific preservation plan. These plans are tailored to the unique preservation needs of each cemetery. For instance, at Byberry Township African American Burial Ground (Philadelphia County), there is nothing above ground to preserve. However, the preservation plan provided recommendations for recordation and managerial control, detailed guidance for site maintenance, and resources for future interpretation. These plans will guide preservation priorities for years to come and are instrumental in working toward long-term preservation. The plans can also aid in securing future funding by demonstrating the necessary projects and accomplishments.

Eleven cemeteries were awarded direct grants, which funded essential cemetery maintenance, conservation, services, and tools that, for many sites, would be financially out of reach for the volunteer groups maintaining the cemeteries. These projects ranged from tree removal and headstone repair to Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), land surveying, and the installation of informative signage. As a result, GPR at Zion Hill Cemetery (Lancaster County) uncovered 258 anomalies, likely unmarked graves, marking a significant step in honoring the unnamed, and the survey at Thornbury AME Cemetery (Delaware County) clarified boundary lines, informing preservation and maintenance planning.

outline map marked with colors showing "anomalies"
Report from Zion Hill Cemetery investigation conducted by Four Oaks Geophysics.

Program Impact

The grantee feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and the increased visibility of their work has energized the community and provided a springboard for additional resources. For some cemeteries, like Payne Chapel in Canonsburg (Washington County), “a little African American burial ground… just waiting to tell its story,” the exposure provided by the grant has been especially meaningful. Reverend Fisher shared, “we were really thrilled…[that] there are people that see us…know that we do exist, and they care.”

As a result of the publicity, Payne Chapel received grants from the Washington County Community Foundation for signage and brochures that will distribute information about the cemetery in the community, create a self-guided cemetery tour, and erect an educational pavilion. They have an upcoming clean-up day in May and will celebrate their 200th anniversary in June.

Similarly, at Green Lawn Cemetery (Delaware County), the publicity of the grant sparked an influx of community support. U.S. Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon initiated a visit, which prompted other elected officials to attend a meeting at the cemetery. PA State Representative Carol Kazeem and her staff developed 50 partnerships, representing over 175 individuals to actively participate in cemetery restoration. This support includes a generous donation of lawn mowers and weed whackers from Milwaukee Tools facilitated by Brian Schwartz, CEO of I Want to Mow Your Lawn, Inc., and the services of two landscaping businesses that cleared out the back section of the cemetery. After years of neglect, the area was cleared just in time for the cemetery’s Veteran’s Tribute in November. Over 100 community members attended the event, which was a powerful and moving tribute honoring veterans buried at the cemetery.

People seated outdoors in chairs. The trees have colorful fall leaves in the background.
Community members attend the Veterans Day Tribute at Green Lawn Cemetery. (Photo: Janet Baldwin.)

Looking Ahead

The impact of the African American Cemetery Stewardship Program underscores the urgent need for more resources to preserve African American cemeteries and assistance for the dedicated stewards racing against time and nature to care for, document, and create sustainable solutions for the long-term preservation of these cemeteries. Without this work, “we risk losing a lot of wonderful stories. Especially from those members of our community that were formerly enslaved and whose stories weren’t necessarily published,” as Tom Kellander from Union Cemetery (Centre County) put it. They are unwilling to let that happen.

The camaraderie and willingness to connect and share information is an integral part of the work, one many are eager for, exemplified by a comment from Chris Frisby of Zion Union Cemetery: “In the very beginning…our group felt so very much alone – that we were doing this on our own. We’re passionate and excited about doing the work but didn’t have a sense that there were so many other sites and groups of people who were basically in the same situation. I think there’s so much power in this network. And we greatly appreciate that.”

One of the challenges is the reality that these grants are a drop in the bucket and stewards are doing extraordinary volunteer work with limited resources compared to the needs of their cemeteries, but this project is one of hope; the persistence, enthusiasm, and love of the stewards are contagious, “We are so excited to be a part of this and part of this history. And we’re getting everybody else excited about it too,” says Angela Rice of Lindley Hill Cemetery (Chester County). While at first, many felt alone in this work – it’s become clear they aren’t anymore.

How can you get involved?

>>PAHG hosts quarterly events for the community. Join the enews list (click here) and follow PAHG on Facebook to stay up to date!

>>Donate to PAHG show your support for our state’s historic African American cemeteries.

For More Information

>>Click here to view the Grantees Presentation and check out related resources on the PAHG website (or view just the video below).

>>PAHG’s website is a hub for useful information. Click here to visit the website and see the preservation plans, research resources, and more.

About the Author

Charlotte Stone served as the Project Coordinator for the African American Cemetery Project, demonstrating her organizational skills and commitment to preserving cultural heritage. With a profound passion for community-centered initiatives, Charlotte leverages her background to forge impactful connections and drive positive change within communities. Learn more about Charlotte Stone.