Volunteers uncover hundreds of graves in historic South Jersey cemetery for black veterans, former slaves

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The tiny reddish orange flags that dot one corner of historic Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside tell a story.

They mark over 200 newly discovered graves in the sprawling cemetery established in 1900 as a private, non-sectarian resting place for black Civil War veterans, former slaves, and those who could not be buried in white-only cemeteries .

After years of neglect, the three-acre section at the back of the cemetery was covered in thick vegetation and inaccessible for at least five decades, said Dolly L. Marshall, who sits on the Mount Peace board of directors. Cemetery Association.

A group of volunteers have spent the last few months clearing the area, using light equipment, rakes and their bare hands to remove branches and vegetation to prevent damage to gravestones and markers, Marshall said. Their objective was to live up to the motto of the cemetery: “Discover the hidden history one stone at a time”.

“It’s backbreaking work in a good way,” Marshall said on tour Wednesday.

Their efforts were spurred on by Mike Passio, 42, a construction worker from nearby Cherry Hill who gently operated an excavator that Marshall hired to clear the land. It would have taken years to remove vegetation without the equipment.

“It was all so thick in there,” Passio said. “You had to be very careful. You had to be respectful.

Volunteers found the ground around some sunken graves, overturned headstones and inscriptions on some markers no longer legible. Some have been found in perfect condition, such as one of the oldest identified as “mother” for Mary A. Sampson, born in 1879 and died in 1924.

Marshall was surprised to locate the grave of a maternal uncle, Jehu O. Hegamin, who died in 1922. Two flowers inscribed on his marker piqued her curiosity and she later learned that he was a prominent florist in Camden .

Some markers leave questions unanswered, such as the grave of Robert Frances Lester, who was only 16 when he died in 1918. Could he have been among the 675,000 people who died that year as a result of the flu pandemic?

“So many stories. Their stories deserve to be told, ”said Linda Shockley, President of the Lawnside Historical Society. “The cemetery is of national importance. It must be preserved and cared for so that future generations can seek it out. “

READ MORE: South Jersey cemetery for black Civil War veterans fell into disrepair; historic site is on the endangered list

Genealogist Shamele Jordon uses the cemetery’s rich heritage to teach history to students of Lawnside, including a recent Civil War scavenger hunt. She also undertook satellite mapping to document the graves at Soldier’s Row.

“It really is a treasure,” Jordan said.

Mount Peace Cemetery is one of three places in Camden County’s historically African-American community that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 3000 people are buried there. Among them are 77 Civil War veterans, including Medal of Honor recipient John H. Lawson.

During the Civil War, veterans served in regiments on the east coast, according to cemetery officials. Their families sent their remains to Lawnside for burial because they were not allowed in the white cemeteries. Lawnside, a stop on the Underground Railroad, was a refuge for free blacks and escaped slaves.

Up to 125 Civil War veterans are believed to be buried at Mount Peace, but their graves have not been located. Burial records and plot plans were lost when a fire destroyed a caretaker’s house on the property. Veterans of the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War are also buried at Mount Peace.

The former owners of the cemetery went bankrupt years ago, leaving the association without funds to maintain the site. Thus, administrators rely on donations and cleanings from residents and members of local churches and civic groups. The cemetery association recently started offering memberships and launched an online store that sells “souvenir merchandise” such as t-shirts and tote bags to generate income, Marshall said.

Preservation New Jersey has listed the cemetery as an endangered site since 2012 to raise awareness that the cemetery may be in danger. Marshall said the association hopes to list it on the National Underground Railroad Network.

Volunteers maintain the front section of the 11-acre cemetery, tend the graves and remove weeds. A local businessman sits on the cemetery board and has been paying the cost of maintaining the lawns since 2014. New burials are no longer accepted.

Marshall said the association hopes to raise funds to clean up the remaining acres and identify as many remains as possible and put the fallen headstones back upright. There could be more graves in the back section, she said. They hope to locate an infant section and the remains of Anna Maria Brin, an African princess from Sierra Leone who died in Camden in 1905, she said.

»READ MORE: Walking Tour: Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad in Philly. Two visits to anti-slavery sites

As they cleared the land, the volunteers searched for clues to identify hidden graves, Marshall said. Some graves without headstones are surrounded by clusters of thorny yucca leaves, often used by African Americans to mark a burial site. Some family sections are surrounded by small stone markers of various shapes, but in many cases the name of the family is unknown.

“There are a lot of them that are unknown,” said Marshall, 44, shop manager.

Marshall kept a diary of each grave discovered. The association hopes to attract more tourists to discover the history of the cemetery.

“It’s so inspiring. I just want to preserve this heritage, ”she said.

For more information, visit www.mtpeacecemeteryassociation.org/ or call 856-546-9069.


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