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Deep Roots in a Historic Black Cemetery

Volunteers come together to tend the grounds and commemorate African American soldiers from the Civil War who rest at the Zion Union Cemetery in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

May of Caring always presents opportunity for learning about initiatives in our community. Sometimes the connections made through a project create a strong imprint and lasting impact on the project participants. This year the United Way staff team, board members and DEIB Committee visited Zion Union Cemetery in Mercersburg. We want to thank local historian, Chris Frisby, for providing historical context and for introducing this project. The following was written by Amy Hicks, to record the significance of this experience.

On May 26, 2023, a small group of volunteers visited the Zion Union Cemetery in Mercersburg to help with some light groundskeeping, leading into the Memorial Day weekend. Like many cemeteries, Zion Union Cemetery is cared for by a small, dedicated association of people who serve as stewards for the site, many of whom are family members of those laid to rest there. Zion Union has historical significance because it is the final resting place for close to 40 soldiers from the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War including the famous 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments (in fact, it is the largest known burial site of the Massachusetts 54th African-American Civil War veterans in a private cemetery). These represent the first group of African American Volunteer Soldiers who were invited to fight with the Union Army in 1863, and they readily volunteered in response to Frederick Douglass’ call. Well after the Civil War ended and soldiers came home to rebuild the American house Lincoln had been determined to save, the 3-acre site was purchased in 1876, at the end of Reconstruction. It was dedicated by African American veterans so that they could honor their military brothers and serve their beloved communities in Mercersburg and other parts of Franklin County. The story of Zion Union Cemetery is not unusual for cemeteries of its time. It was created to meet a need. It was founded by the descendants of people who had formerly been enslaved, then worked in skilled trades as carpenters, butchers, barbers, carriage builders, blacksmiths, and quarrymen as part of the larger community. They were free men, but they were segregated - not allowed access to the same resources as others. This meant that if something like a church, a social club, or a cemetery was needed, the African American people of the community would come together and build it, themselves. Preserving the dignity of deceased loved ones required finding the resources to create a separate cemetery. A separate community emerged to fulfill the unmet needs.

Volunteers learn some of the Zion Church Cemetery's history before volunteering to clean up the grounds.

For those who now care for a cemetery, the work is unending. Spring rains bring tall grasses to mow and weed. Storms and winds blow limbs and debris onto the paths that are walked by visitors. Funds raised through grants and the like are rarely enough to cover the cost of maintaining equipment. As one generation ages, they must rely on the next generation to step up to task of caretaking. The cemetery is a place where community relies on the bonds of family and history, and a cemetery only survives through the generations that feel a connection to it. The world has changed a lot since the 1860’s. As a country, we’ve learned, and we’ve grown. Progress has not always been a linear path. Sometimes we’ve made great advances and other times we’ve stepped backward or had to navigate obstacles. With each generation comes new hope that we will work together to find common ground. We continue to make mistakes as we grasp for understanding, but we forge ahead. For a few hours on this beautiful Friday, people came together to focus on the project at hand, and we were one community with a single purpose. For an afternoon, the past and the present worked perfectly together. On Monday, the traditional Memorial Day parade led a procession of people from all backgrounds through town, concluding a few blocks from the Zion Union Cemetery at the larger, previously segregated Fairview Cemetery for a remembrance ceremony. All soldiers from every American war or conflict were recognized as equal brothers fighting for the precious freedoms we all share. The community was unified in acknowledgement of values held dear by all, and grateful for the freedom we share because of those who have fought for all of us. Taps would be played, and a gentle breeze surely carried the melody across one cemetery and through the warm air to rest on another place. For many families in the community, it is this smaller, second site that would hold the strongest significance through the generations, and they would move, after the parades and ceremonies were complete, to the smaller cemetery to visit and to remember. Lives continue to play out with a separation of experience, this separation built upon the decisions and reactions of prior generations. Time doesn’t easily end the separation of experiences, and families will always return to those they hold dear. The past leaves deep roots and sometimes those roots provide the nourishment for future growth. At this time when we are hearing a lot about the separation of experiences, and at time the messages are painful, we’re in a place where we can embrace learning. If we are prepared to listen, acknowledge, and work to improve the experience life brings with each person we encounter. We can continue to grow a community with the capacity to honor and benefit from many separate experiences.

Above are photos from the United Way volunteer group project.

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