Heritage of York County African American Cemeteries
Settlement patterns can be determined by what those who went before us left behind. Cemeteries offer many clues. The surnames on the headstones and the denomination of the churches with which the graveyards were affiliated point to the ethnic background of the people who lived nearby. The dates on the stones indicate when the area was first inhabited.
There is what may be an unexpected cluster of African American cemeteries in the southeastern corner of York County. See my recent York Sunday News column below for more on those cemeteries as well as the perhaps better known traditionally African American graveyards in York and Wrightsville.
Don’t forget to join Vernon Bracey, Ray Crenshaw, Dr. Dorothy King and Jim McClure for the free program: Voices Remembered: A Journey Through Local African American Cemeteries on Saturday, February 26 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at York County Heritage Trust, 250 East Market St., York.
African American Cemeteries in York County
It is often easier to do historical research if the person or event was connected with a town. Newspapers, the prime news sources, were printed in towns, so events happening to town dwellers were more often recorded there. For example, the majority of York County marriages and deaths in 19th century York papers were of people who lived in York, Hanover and Wrightsville, all newspaper towns. I recently found the same premise to be true while researching York County African-American cemeteries — more is known about those in towns.
Starting with notes shared by Lila Fourhman-Shaull, director of York County Heritage Trust’s Library/Archives, who has been researching over 370 known York County cemeteries for years, I discovered that there were more traditionally African-American cemeteries in York County than I realized. The larger ones, at North York and Wrightsville, were identified and included in the Historical Society of York County (now York County Heritage Trust) cemetery census done in the 1930s. A later researcher recorded several of the others. The York County Department of Veterans Affairs includes them in lists used to places flags on veterans’ graves throughout the county. Brief histories of known York County African-American cemeteries follow:
Lebanon Cemetery, North York, was established in 1872 and is still an active cemetery. There are some markers with earlier death dates, indicating removal from other sites. A September 1874 York Gazette newspaper article tells of moving four bodies from Potter’s field to Lebanon. HSYC recorded 464 markers at Lebanon in January 1935. Many of those were wooden markers, which may not exist today. One of the early burials was Hester Oliver, who died in 1875 at around 100 years old. Numerous Civil War veterans are interred at Lebanon, along with five servicemen who served during the Spanish American War and many who served their country in later service.
Stone Church Cemetery, also called Mt. Pisgah Cemetery, is in Wrightsville. HSYC recorded 81 markers there in December 1934. Many of these were tin, which might now be gone. The earliest markers (1860s) recorded were for two children of Nelson R. and Margaret C. Williams. The cemetery is named for the nearby stone church building, erected in 1891. It still stands, no longer used as a church. The congregation, perhaps one of two AME congregations in Wrightsville at one time, dissolved in 1962. Some sources say there were up to 100 African American families in the Wrightsville area in the early 1800s, and that the congregation might date back to the 1830s. A public school was reportedly held in the church basement in the late 1800s. Civil War veterans buried there include Cpl. Henry Bear, 127th U.S. Colored Troops, who included Native Americans in his heritage.
Most of the other known African American cemeteries cluster in the southeastern part of York County. The 1780 Pennsylvania law established gradual abolition of slavery. There were still about 500 slaves in York County, which included present day Adams County, in the 1790 Federal Census. A good proportion of them were Chanceford Township (including Lower Chanceford) and Fawn Township (including Peach Bottom). That area was settled by Scots Irish, who may have tended to own slaves more than Pennsylvania Germans.
Fawn AME Zion Cemetery, sometimes cited as Trinity, in Fawn Township is also the last resting place of numerous Civil War veterans. One is John Aquilla Wilson, who died at age 101 in 1942. He is said to be one of the volunteer unpaid militia charged with guarding the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge during the Confederate occupation of York County. He later joined Co. B, 32nd USCT. Wilson was one of the last surviving Civil War veterans from Pennsylvania. The church and cemetery are still active.
Delta AME Zion Cemetery, sometimes also called Trinity, is in Peach Bottom Township. The church that was nearby was destroyed by fire. The cemetery, possibly dating back to the 1850s, is still active and Trinity AME Zion church is now located in Delta. There are several Craigs, Dorseys and other surnames listed on Civil War tombstones, again underscoring the number of York County African Americans serving in that conflict. All that is known of another Peach Bottom Township cemetery is a 2002 York Daily Record article chronicling a South Eastern Middle School cleanup project of a “slave cemetery” on private property. Slate stones marked some graves, but no names were discernible.
The Chanceford AME Zion Cemetery in Lower Chanceford Township may still be active, even though the church building is gone. Several Civil War veterans were among the burials, as was John Wesley Wheeler, whose 1929 obituary said that he was a slave before the Civil War and that his mother had come from Africa. Mt. Olive Cemetery is also in Lower Chanceford Township. The cemetery has also been known as Batty’s Chapel, River Hills Cemetery or Black Diamond. The York County Veterans Affairs office calls it Mt. Holly. The cemetery is said to be still active, even though the nearby Mt. Olive UAME Church closed in 1962. As with the others, veterans from the Civil War on rest here, including John L. Guy (1855-1929), of the famed Buffalo Soldiers (25th Infantry).
Lila Fourhman-Shaull also found references to two African American cemeteries in Chanceford Township. One, connected with the Bruce family, has a few unmarked stones. The other is a reference in an 1846 will that places a “Negro graveyard” near Guinston Church. That exact location is unknown.
Want to know more? The public is invited to attend Voices Remembered: A Journey through Local African American Cemeteries on February 26, 2011 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at York County Heritage Trust, 250 East Market St. Dr. Dorothy King, Jim McClure, Ray Crenshaw and Vernon Bracey will be participating in the program.
Please contact me with any information on additional African American cemeteries. It seems there should be more, perhaps near Hanover or in the northern part of York County.
Click the links below for previous posts on York County cemeteries.
St. Luke in Chanceford Township.
Disappearing York County cemeteries.
More on disappearing York County cemeteries.
An old York cemetery.
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