Lawnside, NJ woman restoring 121-year-old historically Black cemetery
A Lawnside woman is on a mission to restore the wooded portion of a historically Black cemetery that has been inaccessible for more than 50 years.
Dolly Marshall, who is also the volunteer coordinator and public relations manager for Mount Peace Cemetery Association, said the mission is to uncover hidden history.
The cemetery has a long history dating back to 1900 when it was first established and it started stating internments in 1902.
Mount Peace is chock full of history. It's located in Lawnside, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The town was a refuge for enslaved people coming from Southern states and other places to gain freedom and opportunity.
The cemetery has historical significance because it was the only place that would accept the remains of Black people. Marshall said in those times cemeteries were segregated: There was a whites-only cemetery and a blacks-only cemetery.
She said the goal is to uncover what has been forgotten, which is a portion of the cemetery that is the oldest part that's been inaccessible for more than five decades due to overgrowth and vegetation. It's been quite difficult to access even by foot because it's so dense.
Mount Peace Cemetery was originally 18 acres but was reduced to 11 1/2 acres due to the overgrowth, development and just the wearing down because of time, Marshall said.
So in October 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marshall and another volunteer decided to start this ginormous undertaking of land clearing and relocating of the graves. The two of them put in more than 100 hours plus doing the work. She said about 3 acres need to be cleared from the back section of the cemetery.
Within six months of the land-clearing project, more than 200 graves have been uncovered.
These graves belonged to veterans from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Spanish-American War, not to mention slaves and just everyday people such as barbers, civic workers, politicians, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers. She said all these discovered graves gives us an idea of what the community was like at the time.
She said it's not just names on a headstones that are being discovered. It's people and what they did and how they made their mark in society.
Marshall is also searching for an infant section in the cemetery. It's lost and she is trying to relocate it. It's a specific section dedicated to children under age 15.
Marshall has even uncovered and relocated some of her own ancestors.
"I was looking for my great-great grandfather and I discovered him in our soldiers row, in our Civil War's section, which was accessible, and that started my quest," she said.
The wooded area where Marshall is currently working is the oldest section of the cemetery and there, she found one of her ancestors, her great-great uncle, which was very exciting.
There's more work that needs to be done to fully restore the cemetery. Marshall needs volunteers and lots of them.
Volunteers are needed to pick up debris, bagging trash, hauling and stacking tree branches and clearing brush.
The cemetery association also offers membership programs where people can go to the Mount Peace website and sign up to be a friend of the cemetery. There, members will be made aware of other ways help is needed besides physical labor.
In the fall, she said she hopes to conduct public tours and make it a learning experience for all. There's so much hidden history to discover.
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