CANONSBURG – Marlene Garrett Bransom found her life’s calling when she went to a genealogical society in Greene County to search her black family’s roots.
“I found nothing,” said Bransom, recalling the 1984 visit to Cornerstone Genealogical Society in Waynesburg that set her investigative skills in motion.
“So I did my own research so there could be something left for future generations who might do the searching,” said Bransom, 59, a retired English teacher in the Pittsburgh School District.
That visit would result in her publishing a string of books detailing the deaths of black residents in Washington and Greene counties, and eventually led her to a partially overgrown Canonsburg cemetery containing the graves of many veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.
“A lot of people don’t realize African-Americans were anxious to enlist because they knew what it meant,” she said. “They were fighting for their freedom. We were always led to believe they didn’t serve in the war.”
In all, 180,000 black men served in the Union Army during the war, including nearly 11,000 former slaves who were trained at Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, according to the research of Dickinson College in Carlisle.
Eventually, after scouring old editions of The Canonsburg Herald at Frank Sarris Public Library, Bransom found obituaries for 16 USCT soldiers buried at the nearby Payne African Methodist Episcopal Church Cemetery. Another 20 black men from the Canonsburg area served in the war and were buried elsewhere. In many cases, she even obtained the veterans’ pension applications to further document their experiences.
“After school, every day I came to this library. I was possessed. Every story is interesting. The idea that these people fought and their descendants, for the most part, don’t even know.”
The Rev. Frank Brown, pastor of Payne AME at 23 Payne Place, said even he was unaware of the cemetery’s connection to the Civil War. The church now draws only about six people for worship services, and has no plans to restore the burial grounds, he said.
Bransom said it’s sad because there are no longer burials at Payne that would pay for its upkeep, which is limited to areas around the graves close to the church.
“The cemetery goes over the hill back into the woods. It has higher grass than what I would like to see.”
She said some black men initially served in the Civil War, but were not entirely welcomed by white officers and soldiers.
“It didn’t work out. Would you want a black man next to you with a gun? I think there was a trust problem.”
Racism, she said, could even be found in the obituaries of black veterans of the war.
Thomas B. “Bishop” Sluby, a barber in Canonsburg and a Civil War veteran, was remembered in his obituary as having an “inordinate love for strong drink.”
“He was a genial, good-natured man, whom most men thought well of - a useful member of the community, and although a colored man - of more than ordinary intelligence for one in his station.”
The obituary for Richard “Uncle Remus” Kennedy indicated he was the oldest man in Canonsburg when he died in February 1911 at the age of 106. It detailed how he escaped from a plantation in Kentucky after all of its white men joined the Confederate Army when the war broke out. He crossed into Ohio and entered the USCT’s 43rd Pennsylvania Regiment, convinced the “South would be licked in the end.”
Eventually President Abraham Lincoln allowed for the formation of the USCT over fears the North was losing the war, Bransom said.
“Lincoln knew he needed them,” she said. “In my opinion, if it wasn’t for the USCT we wouldn’t have won the war.”
To this day, she said, there exists a misconception that men born into slavery were angry and prone to violence at the time of the war.
“These people had every reason to act out, get violent and they didn’t. They were of a calm and peaceful nature and just wanted to survive like everyone else.”