12 Black veterans receive overdue honors at historic Lebanon Cemetery

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

Barry Freeland recalls occasionally meeting his cousin, Harold Baxter, who died in 1971, the same year Freeland joined the U.S. Navy and went to Vietnam. 

It wasn’t until Freeland found out Baxter was among the 12 U.S. veterans to be honored Saturday in York County that he realized the two had more in common than just blood. They were also brothers in arms. 

American Legion Post 127 members Serena Scott and Meeshaun Battie unveil a new military-style headstone for James B. Hopkins during a dedication ceremony Saturday, Nov. 19. 2022 at Lebanon Cemetery in North York. Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery, a group dedicated to caring for the historically Black cemetery, held the ceremony to honor the erecting of new headstones for some of the many U.S. Veterans buried there. Scott is the Legion Post Steward and Deputy Commander for the 22nd District of the American Legion. Battie is the Legion Post's Senior Vice Commander.

Baxter, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, was among 12 veterans whose proper headstones were unveiled Saturday at the historically Black Lebanon Cemetery in North York.

“It’s long overdue,” Freeland said. “Thank God, we are finally getting to a point that we can begin the process. I am sure there are many more.” 

Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery held the dedication ceremony to recognize the initial 12 veterans receiving new headstones. It was part of a three-year project by the group to identify veterans from every war the United States fought in and to place proper markers free of charge on the graves of those who did not have one. 

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Jenny De Jesus, vice president for the Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery, led the group’s effort to identify all of the veterans buried in the cemetery and erect more suitable markers for veterans buried there. 

She said it took researching obituaries and websites such as Ancestry.com to find information about those buried in the cemetery and to verify their military service.  

“It was a matter of pulling all the documents together to prove that a lot of them did serve and just never got a military stone,” De Jesus said.  

She said some veterans had small, temporary markers, many of which became covered with soil over the years. De Jesus said some of those markers had to be found with metal detectors. 

“They deserved better than that,” De Jesus said. 

The Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery identified 322 people who served in the military, from the Civil War onward. De Jesus said locating the Civil War veterans’ graves had proven difficult but that there are plans to erect a memorial to those veterans. 

“Some have been waiting 50-plus years and their story (is) not being told,” De Jesus said. 

The service members whose headstones were installed Saturday are: James Dagins Sr., World War I, Army; Burt S. Clark, World War II, Army; John Hiers, World War II, Army; James H. Dagins Jr., World War II, Army; William H. Johnson, World War II, Army; James B. Hopkins, World War I, Reserve Labor Battalion; James Brent Brown, Vietnam, Army; Franklin Page, World War II, Army; Joseph McKinley Ambush, World War I, Army; Baxter; Charles Sharp, World War II, Army; and Leon D. Nelson, World War II, Navy. 

De Jesus said five more military headstones have been ordered for other veterans at the cemetery and Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery has identified at least 10 others that have headstones that need to be replaced. 

Samantha Dorm, emcee for the ceremony and Friends volunteer, said the cemetery was founded in 1872 to provide a proper burial ground for those in the African American community. 

“These lands were purchased so that we can show dignity and respect for our loved ones,” Dorm said. 

Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery was established in 2019 to make sure that everyone buried there is known and recorded. Dorm said that in the midst of doing the research on those buried there, the group learned that many were U.S. veterans.  

Up until 1948, African American members of the military were not allowed to be buried in national military cemeteries. 

“It is often said if you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it,” guest speaker the Rev. Dr. Carita Brown said. “This may be true, but it is also true that if you don’t know your history, you don’t know how far you’ve come, you don’t know how many sacrifices were made, you don’t know how much things have changed and how much further you still have to go.”