Hundreds of headstones of Black people uncovered in Pennsylvania cemetery

More than 3,700 bodies are buried in very close proximity in the historic Lebanon Cemetery.

A growing movement based out of York, Pennsylvania is dedicated to helping preserve the city’s historic Black cemetery, CNN reports.

A group of volunteers called Friends of Lebanon Cemetery has worked for more than three years to uncover the headstones of several thousand people buried in the neglected cemetery.

The organization’s official website notes that volunteers are committed to uncovering “the rich history of York County’s African-American burial grounds by researching, identifying and documenting the people interred in these cemeteries, linking familial ties, preserving and restoring not just their locations but their stories.”

Hundreds of headstones of Black people have been recently uncovered in a Pennsylvania cemetery (not pictured here). (AdobeStock)
Hundreds of headstones of Black people have been recently uncovered in a Pennsylvania cemetery (not pictured here). (AdobeStock)

The city of York once boasted its own Black Wall Street and its first “colored school” was led by educator James Smallwood, who is buried at the historic Lebanon Cemetery, according to the CNN report. Friends of Lebanon Cemetery volunteers were told that there are at least 2,300 grave markers.

They have so far uncovered 800 buried headstones, including that of Anna Johnson, the great-grandmother of decorated Special Olympics athlete Loretta Claiborne.

Johnson was 84 when she died mysteriously after the 1969 race riots in York and was buried at Lebanon Cemetery. Until the mid-1960s, it was one of the only graveyards in the area where Black people could be buried.

Claiborne had for years searched in vain for Johnson’s headstone at Lebanon. Friends of Lebanon ultimately uncovered it and invited Claiborne, 69, to visit the site. Her great-grandmother’s resting place, like most other headstones, was barely protruding from the dirt and seemingly lost to the earth under decades of overgrown rock, brush and mildew.

“They buried her and didn’t have the (respect) to spell her name right,” Claiborne told CNN, noting that the H in Johnson’s name was missing on the headstone. “That’s pretty poor. I was elated that I was able to find her grave, but I was not elated to see how it wasn’t respectful to her.”

According to cemetery records, more than 3,700 are likely tightly buried in Lebanon, ground-penetrating radar found.  “If they’re not touching, they’re nearly touching,” said geophysicist Bill Steinhart, who has surveyed most of the cemetery, according to the CNN report.

Friends of Lebanon Cemetery has discovered that the people buried at the site range from common folk such as schoolteachers and factory workers to prominent figures, including Buffalo soldiers, veterans, including a Tuskegee Airman, as well as agents of the Underground Railroad.

Some of the gravestones that have been discovered include Mary J. Small, the first woman elected elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Rev. John Hector, a Civil War soldier and noted Temperance Movement speaker famously dubbed “the Black Knight” and William Wood, who helped inventor Phineas Davis build his first locomotive engine.

Relatives and descendants travel from near and far to tend to the graves.

“Telling their stories through the preservation of their last resting places is vital to providing an authentic narrative of American history,” Friends of Lebanon Cemetery states on its website.

Lebanon and similar long-forgotten burial grounds could benefit from funding through the proposed African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, which U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have introduced.

“For too long these burial grounds and the men and women interred there were forgotten or overlooked,” Brown said in a statement, according to CNN. “Saving these sites is not only about preserving Black History, but American history, and we need to act now before these sites are lost to the ravages of time or development.”

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