'A new era': New board caring for York County's first Black cemetery

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

A historic Black cemetery that has become overrun with weeds and disappearing grave markers is making a comeback thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and a newly created board of directors.

Jeff Kirkland, president of the board, wants Lebanon Cemetery — York County's first Black cemetery — into proper legal and operating compliance after years of "community neglect and noncompliance," he said.

"It's not operating like it should have been," Kirkland said, adding that the Lebanon Cemetery Co. Board of Directors formed in October.

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

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Kirkland, like many other York County residents, has family buried at North York cemetery. For him, the upkeep of the site is personal and important.

"Not only are we honoring the work of our ancestors, but we're leaving a legacy for our future generations," Kirkland said. "We're talking about a lot of accomplishments of Black folks in York County."

Many notable Black York County residents are buried at Lebanon Cemetery, including the son of the prominent abolitionist William Goodridge and Mary J. Small, who was the first woman to become a church elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion tradition in 1898.

The Lebanon Cemetery Co. is currently working with an attorney to ensure the cemetery will be in compliance with the state.

Frank Countess, an attorney for the Lebanon Cemetery Co., has been filing paperwork with the state. Most recently, he filed a proper address and fictitious name filing with the Pennsylvania Corporation Bureau last week.

The fictitious name filing establishes that different variations of the cemetery's name — like "Lebanon Cemetery" and "Lebanon Cemetery Association" — that have been used in formal paperwork previously is all legally under the same company.

Lebanon Cemetery, which was founded in 1872, predates the formation of several government organizations — like the state corporation bureau — responsible for recordkeeping. Because of this, many of the documentations filed are now nonexistent or inconsistent, Countess said.

"We just flew under the radar because we are a very small historic cemetery," Countess said. "The time came that we need to get our cemetery in keeping with all state regulations."

Two of the main regulations are  that  individuals who sell grave plots have real estate certification and that financial reserves are maintained for future property maintenance.

Both of these regulations are intended to protect consumers and to ensure people who buy plots have the reasonable expectation that when they visit, Lebanon Cemetery will be properly maintained and mowed, Countess said.

Pennsylvania didn't begin regulating cemeteries until the 1950s and 1960s, he added. 

"It took a long time for the state to find the cemeteries that time had forgotten," Countess said. "It's now our time to comply with modern regulations."

But beyond legal compliance, the Lebanon Cemetery Co. Board of Directors is organizing several events to bring community members into the cemetery to learn about and honor those buried there, according to board secretary Margie Orr.

A flag-laying ceremony to honor the veterans buried in the cemetery is slated for 10 a.m. Saturday at Lebanon Cemetery, located at 1412 N. George St.

Kirkland and Orr are working to schedule a community-wide meeting for plot owners and families to help educate residents on what the board of directors aims to do and what comes next for the cemetery.

A date and time hasn't been scheduled, but information is available by calling 717-814-9064 or emailing lebanoncemeteryassoc@gmail.com.

"We're moving forward," Orr said. "To get it beautified again is something that we can be proud of."

Lisa Nelson, of Dover Township, often visits Lebanon Cemetery to place flowers at her grandmother's grave.

Her grandmother, Lois, came from South Carolina to York County in the 1940s and taught Lisa about her family and the ancestors who came before her.

"Back then, that was the only place people of color could be buried," Lisa said, adding that her great-grandmother, Bessie Holmes, and great-great-grandmother, Essie Edwards, also are buried at Lebanon Cemetery.

In addition to visiting, she's also a volunteer with the nonprofit Friends of Lebanon Cemetery, which is dedicated to preserving, restoring, researching and documenting York's historic Black cemetery.

"They now have a group of people who do care," Nelson said, referring to the newly created board of directors. "The dawn of a new era is coming."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.