Uncovering stories of our ancestors: spotlight on Lebanon Cemetery

On a girls' trip Sunday, Samantha Dorm was visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and noticed a familiar name.

"As I was walking past the display, I did a double take," she said when reached Wednesday, Jan. 29.

Mary J. Small — the wife of Bishop John Bryant Small, for whom the Small Memorial AME Zion Church on South Queen Street in York City, was named — was the first woman to become a church elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion tradition in 1898.

Dorm was surprised to see the female Small recognized because, "we really don’t think about or have not celebrated her successes here in York, Pennsylvania."

Small is one of many prominent York County residents buried in North York's Lebanon Cemetery — the first black cemetery in York County — who had a great impact on the community's history. 

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

Few people know her story or the stories of others in the cemetery. Dorm is a part of the Friends of Lebanon Cemetery Facebook group, which is dedicated to preserving the cemetery and educating residents about who is buried there.

Dorm and a few volunteers will hold a free spotlight presentation at the meeting hall of the York County History Center, 250 E. Market St., at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, to highlight the lives of those buried at Lebanon Cemetery.

For example, she said, George Bowles was  known primarily as a prominent black physician. But researchers found that he was one of the organizers responsible for bringing Negro Leagues baseball to York in 1890.

To make the presentation on Sunday more interactive, there will be trivia, such as matching famous names to their accomplishments or distinctions.

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

Some volunteers have been organizing to preserve the cemetery since 2017.

Since last spring, volunteers, including Dorm, have uncovered flat markers of at least 400 graves at Lebanon Cemetery. As of July, more than 273 military veterans had been documented.

Once uncovered, headstones and grave markers  are documented and uploaded to findagrave.com and billiongraves.com so that if they are lost again, families will have a map of their last known location with GPS coordinates.

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

Friends of Lebanon Cemetery volunteers have been working with  members of the South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society to discover information as they uncover graves.

Dorm said if her group has questions, society volunteers share information they have gathered over the years — some with files of research going 10 to 20 years back.

"They've already laid the foundation," said Friends of Lebanon volunteer Tina Charles, of the society. "They're just as excited in us finding new details about things that they may have worked on for a long time." 

They helped track down information on cemetery residents such as Etha Cowles Armstrong, who was known as the only black woman in York County to be employed in a factory as a skilled hand. The genealogical society helped identify her also as the head of the the black arm of the Women's Suffrage Party of York.

More:The York Dispatch's full archive, dating back to 1876, now available to public

"I think one of the most interesting stories we found in this process was Helen Thackston," Dorm said.

She was the first director of the preschool program for Crispus Attucks York, and it wasn't until digging deeper that volunteers discovered other prominent Yorkers had lived in her family's homes on Cleveland Avenue in York City. 

Thackston lived there in the early 1900s,  Armstrong lived in one of the homes in the 1920s and former city councilman Raymond Crenshaw lived there in 1955.

Anne Grey, a volunteer at the Goodridge Freedom Center works to clear an overgrown grave marker at Lebanon Cemetery in North York, during the first of several work days at the neglected, historic cemetery, Sunday, May 19, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"All these people that came through were pioneers fighting for the rights of the African American community," Dorm said.

Friends of Lebanon Cemetery has already begun documenting gravesites in smaller historically black cemeteries, and this spring they plan to begin doing physical cleanup as they did with Lebanon.

"We had these astounding individuals that had made such strides in their community and helped develop York as a whole that we thought these people should be talked about and shared with everybody," Charles said.