Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

To Protect and Preserve: Historic black cemeteries are top priorities for preservationists, caretakers.

Midland Cemetery

Richard Baker’s grave tells you his tale.

Born a slave in Shippensburg in the 1790s. Freed at age 28 under Pennsylvania’s “Gradual Abolition of Slavery” law. Barber, minister and prominent member of the community. His right to vote, assured when he was freed, was stripped away in the 1830s and restored when he lived to see passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments after the Civil War.

Dr. Steven Burg shares the story at Baker’s gravesite in downtown Shippensburg’s Locust Grove Cemetery.

“People always imagine slavery as something that happened far away and happened in the South,” said Burg, chair of Shippensburg University’s Department of History and Philosophy. “To be standing in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, at the grave of a man who was born a slave and lived 28 years of his life as a slave in Pennsylvania, especially for young people, forces them to rethink what is slavery, what is freedom, what is the community where I live?”

And that, says a cadre of Pennsylvania historic preservationists, makes cemeteries “ground zero” for weaving more threads of African-American life into the tapestry of American history. They are partnering with the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office to implement a $30,000, two-year National Park Service grant to study Pennsylvania’s historic African-American sites.

The grant supports a project providing historical context to churches, schools, cemeteries and fraternal buildings, reports the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. But Burg and two other grant partners representing the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project—Barbara Barksdale of Steelton and Brenda Barrett of Harrisburg—really want to talk about cemeteries.

Much of the built environment where African Americans lived their lives and contributed to communities has disappeared, but cemeteries “allow us to show that we’re part of the fabric of the United States,” said Barksdale. “Most people don’t look at us as contributors when, in fact, we are the blood, sweat and tears of America.”


Thorny Issues

Barksdale is legendary for leading the transformation of Steelton’s Midland Cemetery from an overgrown lot to serene hilltop resting place for her grandfather, Buffalo Soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops and Negro Leagues legend Herbert “Rap” Dixon,” the first African American ever to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium.

Barksdale’s work led her to found the PA Hallowed Grounds Project, which convenes caretakers of African-American burial grounds statewide to share resources and tell their stories.

Barrett has held high-level state and federal preservation posts, and, as current board member and a committee chair for US/ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites), evaluates places worldwide for World Heritage Site designation.

African-American cemeteries deserve National Register of Historic Places status, Barrett said, but the criteria for inclusion can be insurmountable. The nation’s abundance of cemeteries prompted the National Park Service, administrator of the National Register, to determine that they “ordinarily” don’t deserve listing unless they have architectural or design significance, “and that’s not the case with African-American cemeteries.”

“We have the wooden headstones,” said Barksdale. “We have the markers that are chiseled in by someone in the family. We have a lot of graves that don’t even have markers because people couldn’t afford it.”

Which leaves African-American cemeteries vulnerable to destructive forces. Barksdale has seen the U.S. Postal Service install a mailbox over grave sites. In Carlisle, a cemetery was turned into a “park” by the simple act of removing headstones. The resting places of many Buffalo Soldiers are known because the U.S. government issued official headstones in the late 1800s. This created a boon for historic preservationists but also a smokescreen for at least one developer who exhumed three Buffalo Soldiers for reburial at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery while conveniently overlooking other likely graves underfoot.

In the early 2000s, state efforts cataloged 42 Pennsylvania USCT cemeteries—a big step on the way to broader recognition—but they ground to a halt with Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration in 2010, said Barrett. Today’s grant project builds on what remains and tackles the “thorny issues” confronting cemetery caretakers seeking National Register status, she said.

The funds can support such purposes as putting cemeteries on state mapping systems, helping caretakers build their capacities for education and submitting National Register applications, and “getting people engaged in identification, interpretation, education and eventually stewardship” of cemeteries.

“The goal is to set up a framework so properties can be inventoried, documented and nominated to the National Register, so we don’t have a culture of ‘no’ but a good, reasoned argument why these cemeteries should be recognized and seen as important,” said Barrett. “It’s not just listing in the National Register. That’s important, but when that post office box comes along, or that highway, we need to be able to say this is important. If it’s not evaluated, it may not be preserved.”


Sense of Place

Burg noted that National Register listing is “no guarantee” of a site’s protection.

“But there’s definitely a greater value and a greater consideration before destroying those kinds of resources,” he said.

Within a broader discussion of revising National Register criteria to reflect growing understanding of African-American cemeteries’ significance, the grant project helps caretakers “not just tell the local story but put it in a larger context,” he said.

That’s consequential because National Register applications require placement of nominated sites within the broader trends of their eras. For time- and resource-strapped caretakers, the larger context to accompany their meticulously researched local stories can be “something they don’t have at hand.”

“If we do this right, people will be able to take what they know about their local site, plug in this broader story and context and have the majority of the nomination completed,” Burg said.

Using that context-meld, the project should yield test nominations in a submission process that winds through PHMC and the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office on its way to National Park Service consideration. Burg’s students are working on a nomination for the restored Locust Grove Cemetery, the final resting place of Shippensburg’s Richard Baker, in what Burg hopes will be “at least one of the test cases.”

Cemeteries revive the stories and contributions of African Americans in some surprising places, said Barrett and Barksdale. African Americans lived in rural areas, working in long-gone or now-diminished industries, like charcoal making and logging, before migrating to large cities in search of jobs, neighborhoods that would house them, and restaurants that would serve them.

“There was a little town called Little Washington in Perry County,” said Barksdale. “Cumberland County had one of the largest populations of African Americans until the turn of the 20th century.”

Cemeteries document eras when segregation wasn’t the norm, and they myth-bust in this age when “people get caught up in what they hear because they don’t bother to research or read,” said Barksdale.

“There was integration of schools in the 1800s right here in this region,” she said. “Because people are stuck in that separation mode and what they think they know, they don’t know how to reintegrate themselves. The cemeteries allow you to expose that.”

People might appreciate the importance of history in the abstract, but they are likelier to connect “when it applies directly to their family, their community, their neighborhood,” said Burg.

“Cemeteries are important places where you can bring people and physically connect them to that sense of history, that sense of place, the diversity and richness of African-American history that a lot of people don’t realize, especially in small towns, is woven into these places,” he said. “If we choose not to protect and preserve these places, the only physical sites that tell the story of African-American history in Pennsylvania may be wiped off the map.”

To learn more, read Brenda Barrett’s blog on the PA Hallowed Grounds Project, “A Landscape of Hope,” at And read about PA Hallowed Grounds at

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