'Deserve to be remembered': York College students research those interred at potter's field

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

Eight hundred souls rest in a massive cemetery, many of the graves unmarked, in York City.

The area, known as a potter's field, might be largely forgotten — but for the work of middle school teacher Jamie Noerpel. In addition to raising money to erect a monument at the site, she's organized the efforts of 18 York College students to build an exhibit dedicated to the site.

The students work now wraps around an entire room at the college's Center for Community Engagement.

"I wish more people would respect it," said junior history major Katie O’Neill, who noted how often people throw trash at the cemetery. "These people do deserve to be remembered and recognized."

Katie O'Neill, one of the student contributors, on left, and Jen O'Neill, on right, from York, at the presentation on Potter's Field by York College at The Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy in York on Friday, May 5, 2023.

Jacqueline Beatty, the York College professor who oversaw the exhibit's creation, said the exercise also showed students the work that goes into historic preservation and museum curation.

"They get a kind of a behind-the-scenes look at how real museum curators do this kind of stuff on a very small scale," she said.

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Beatty assigned each student to research 10 to 15 people interred at the cemetery, utilizing the skills they developed in the classroom and other resources, such as ground-penetrating radar images, Noerpel gathered.

"Research-wise, it was kind of heavy," said another student, Jeffery Parris, "because you’re reading about all these people in this material, some of [it] about how they passed away."

The York College students who worked on the project and presentation about Potter's Field at The Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy in York on Friday, May 5, 2023.

Although some of the people buried there died more than a hundred years ago, many of the students felt a deep connection with the history of the people they researched.

"It was difficult because you would encounter a few people where there's no information on them. You felt like you were giving up on them, like you couldn't find anything," said student Sydney Slack.

Slack said they kept in mind that every person researched had people who cared about them. Their stories are still important.

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Her classmate Dalton Emig had a similar experience, delving into research for hours on end. Emig even visited York City Cemetery twice, once before the research process and once after.

"It was kind of a surreal experience to go back that second time," Emig said, "because all those people I was researching ... they're right there in front of me."

Jamie Noerpel, from York Haven, showing the Project Penny Heaven cemetery in North York on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

The stories they discovered ranged from sad to funny.

One person Parris researched had a record of being arrested for breaking and entering a friend's house and, on the day of his trial, tried to run away from the courthouse.

These stories helped Emig feel connected to the people.

"There was no ceremony for them. I think that's tragic," he said.

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While there may have been no ceremony for the deceased when they were interred, people like Noerpel, who founded Project Penny Heaven, are making sure they get the honor and respect they deserve.

Noerpel became invested in York City Cemetery when she lived in an apartment that directly overlooks the small plot of land. The grassy green property only has one indication that it's a cemetery: a small stone plaque that was donated by a class of York College students.

Jamie Noerpel, from York Haven, showing the Project Penny Heaven cemetery in North York on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

The Friends of York City Cemetery was founded to raise funds for a granite monument dedicated to those laid to rest at the potter's field. As of Friday, they had met the $20,000 goal to commission the monument.

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To learn more about York City Cemetery, visit the Museum Studies class exhibit in the York College Center for Community Engagement located at 59 E Market St. in York City. The exhibit will be open to the public throughout the summer and follow the operating hours of the community center.

To learn more about Project Penny Heaven and the work to build a monument at York City Cemetery check out the project website at https://www.preservationpa.org/special-projects/project-penny-heaven/.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.