'Everyone here is family': Restoring York's first black cemetery

Volunteers armed with metal detectors, trimming tools and shovels trudged up the hill early Saturday morning at Lebanon Cemetery in North York to beat a heat index pushing past 100 degrees.

A tuft of grass pulled up had an imprint of Thomas A. Pappe, 1895-1956, revealing a  marker below.

"This was the only cemetery where blacks in this area could be buried," said Samantha Dorm, a volunteer who got involved with efforts to restore it last April.

Archbishop, chemist, laborer — "back then, there was no choice," she said. "They were all there simply because of the color of their skin, regardless of the station they were in life."

The York City cemetery, now just under 5 acres, has entrances overgrown with vegetation, markers that have sunk 3 to 4 feet in the ground and sites that have been disturbed by groundhogs. 

As of Sunday, Dorm said, the volunteers have found and uncovered 240 grave markers.

Emily Knight, 9 from Bensalem PA, left, and SGT. Hughes Dejour, a member of the PA Army National Guard C Troop 2nd 104th CAV, uncover a flag marker on a veteran grave at Lebanon Cemetery in North York, Saturday, July 20, 2019. The cemetery, which was the first in York where African-American could be buried, has been in a state of neglect for many years.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Dorm instructed about 14 volunteers on Saturday, July 20, to trim the grass around obscured grave markers and watch for fragile, deteriorating metal plates.

In addition, regular participants including Tina Charles, Jenny DeJesus and Wayne Scott Jr. were on hand offering help.

Many volunteers have family ties — to each other and to those buried in the cemetery — and hope to do all they can to find lost loved ones for the York community.

More:'History does not repeat itself; people repeat history'

More:PHOTOS: 50th Anniversary of York Race Riots

Alana Barnes, of York City, said her uncle is buried at the cemetery, but she “was shocked to find there were other family members (of hers) here.”

Each uncovered gravestone is documented, and information is uploaded to findagrave.com and billiongraves.com with corresponding GPS coordinates. 

Charles adds in information from old newspaper articles to “try to get a little story on everybody.”

Some of them are funny, she said. A woman called the police because her husband was missing, only to find out he’d been out digging a grave for an entire day. One man was part of a group of kids who used to skip school and steal candy.

She’s been looking through papers from 1872, the year of the cemetery’s founding, to 1915 and has a couple  hundred names so far that have yet to be found.

"We now have people contacting us all across the United States," Dorm said, including from states such as Alabama, Tennessee, California and Alaska. 

DeJesus said there was a woman who’d been looking for her brother since she was little. She used to read books to him. “She sat here crying and read a book to him again,” DeJesus said.

Volunteers work to find and clear overgrown grave markers at Lebanon Cemetery in North York, Saturday, July 20, 2019. The cemetery, which was the first in York where African-Americans could be buried, has been in a state of neglect for many years.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Wayne Scott said he’d been looking for his brothers for 50 years and has found four —one, who died as an infant, was  just uncovered Saturday.

His son, Wayne Scott Jr., started the volunteer effort just a couple of years ago.

He lived in the Parkway neighborhood at the bottom of the hill, and from the age of 13 would come visit the gravestones of his relatives for peace.

“I would just straighten everyone else’s up,” the younger Scott said.

As the years went by, he said he knew more and more people who were buried there and realized he would need more hands on deck to clean it up.

York is so small that “everyone here is family, at least in the city,” he said. 

A problem with fully restoring the cemetery is not knowing who owns it, as the nonprofit Lebanon Cemetery Co. is inactive and the cemetery's caregivers are in their 70s and likely don't have the financial means, volunteers said.

More:Archaeologists hope to uncover Revolutionary-era site at Camp Security

"Right now this is just a Band Aid," said DeJesus. 

Equipment is needed, and in order to get funding, the cemetery needs to have a board of trustees.

York County Director of Veterans Affairs Terry Gendron met with the group in June and is supportive of its efforts to reestablish legal management.

"For several generations, the Lebanon Cemetery Co. managed this private cemetery," he wrote in an email. "The current legal standing of that company is in question."

Gendron wrote to the two remaining family members involved in the cemetery in an effort to aid in a transition to a board of directors for the company, he said.

Several volunteers noted that county code requires veteran graves to be visible and maintained. So far the group has uncovered all 36 civil war soldiers, among others.

Charles is also working with Barb Barksdale, of Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project — an effort to restore all the African American cemeteries throughout the state — to make Lebanon Cemetery a historical site.

Lisa Nelson, of Dover Township, said her grandmother taught her to have great reverence for cemeteries — something she passed along to the next generation.

“She told me if there wasn’t any of these people, there wouldn’t be any you,” she said.