Segregated cemeteries: A remnant of a not-so-distant past

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In the midst of the succession of 150th anniversaries associated with the Civil War, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey shed light on an issue to which those of us who dwell in the 21st century likely don’t give much thought: cemeteries segregated by race.


Casey called on the Veterans Administration to take steps to recognize black Civil War veterans buried in segregated cemeteries. “Thousands of African-American Civil War veterans are buried in segregated cemeteries that are often forgotten,” according to a press release issued by the senator’s office. Casey asked the VA to establish a public database listing where African-American Civil War veterans are buried.


According to the senator’s office, black soldiers, both slave and free, who fought with the Union Army were not usually laid to rest alongside their fellow white soldiers in the cemeteries that were created after battle due to segregation practiced during the Civil War.


“Many of these cemeteries are in poor condition or even lost,” Casey wrote to Steve L. Munro, VA undersecretary.


No Civil War battles took place in this immediate area, but segregated cemeteries are not unheard of here.


Marlene Garrett Bransom, a retired Pittsburgh Public Schools English teacher, researched old editions of The Canonsburg Herald and found obituaries for 16 members of the “U.S. Colored Troops” buried at the Payne African Methodist Episcopal Church Cemetery in Chartiers Township. Another 20 black men from the Canonsburg area served in the war and were buried elsewhere.


She supports Casey’s efforts.


“It would be extremely helpful to establish a public database identifying where African-American Civil War veterans are buried, and I would be glad to assist in this effort,” Bransom wrote in an email. “Does Sen. Casey want to create a database for Pennsylvania alone? Or is he talking about a national database? Creating a database for Pennsylvania would be manageable; however, a national database would be overwhelming. Perhaps that could be something senators in other states could initiate.”


White officers commanded “colored” soldiers during the Civil War. Samuel P. Fergus, who was shot in the hip at the Battle of Gettysburg, recovered to lead the 27th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, as a lieutenant, fighting in the front at Petersburg, Va., said his great-grandson, Washington County Director of Administration Scott Fergus.


He questioned if cemeteries north of the Mason-Dixon Line were segregated because family members or church members simply chose that their remains stay with family or fellow parishioners. The 173-acre Monongahela Cemetery, established in 1863 to accommodate Civil War dead, is integrated. A representative of Washington Cemetery, which is 10 years older, did not return a call seeking information.


As land in the Payne Cemetery became scarce, property that became Chartiers Cemetery was donated in 1914 by William Davis, according to online cemetery data prepared in 2012 by Paul E. Sluby Sr., crediting both Robert L. Campbell and Jerome Davis with its recent restoration and maintenance.


“There was nowhere else to bury blacks,” Jerome Davis said, referring to what he called “the color issue. And you thought it was only down South.”


Davis, whose backyard overlooks the cemetery, can attest to Casey’s sentiment that old cemeteries are often forgotten.


“I’m closer to 60 than 50,” he said of reclaiming the 3 1/2 acres from woods. “It’s been a challenge.”


What looks like a gravel driveway off Wylie Avenue is actually Cemetery Lane in Midland, Chartiers Township. There is a green- and-white sign with a misspelling posted at what Davis said is actually a township road. Gravel gives way to a grass-covered path that was sprinkled, in late June, with trumpet-like blossoms from a catalpa tree. Blackberry brambles separate it from adjacent yards.


“I used to play in that cemetery when I was a kid, running around and playing on the hill. The guys used to be digging graves (illuminated by) the old coal mine carbide lamps,” Davis said. He said back then, the eerie glow scared him.


He’s since spent countless hours there. “I’m not a history buff,” said Davis, a construction supervisor with Prime 1 Builders Inc. of Morgan. “I’m the hammer, nail and shovel.”


He acknowledged Chartiers Township, cement contractor Ed Strnisa of McDonald and Art Smith Equipment Co. of Elizabeth in helping in various ways in his mission to maintain the cemetery. His great-grandmother, Dessie Davis Hilton, was the last person to be buried in Chartiers Cemetery, in 1980.


“There are a lot of graves back there that aren’t even marked,” Davis said.


In a wooded part of the cemetery, Davis said ripples reveal unmarked grave sites. He pegged the cost of ground-penetrating radar to locate the graves at $1,600 a day.


While Sluby’s list of 146 buried in Washington County’s Chartiers Cemetery does not note the graves of any Civil War soldiers, there are barely legible stones that have Grand Army of the Republic markers on them and American flags.


The Civil War “colored troops” were not an anomaly. United States armed forces remained segregated until the aftermath of President Harry S. Truman’s executive order of July 26, 1948.


With the recent 100-year anniversary of the assassination that sparked World War I, research by Sluby at his eponymous website notes the grave of Thomas Brown, born Sept. 10, 1888, a World War I veteran who died Nov. 5, 1964; and Pvt. Welford Hython, also known as Hynton, who died April 18, 1949, in his home on Patsch Street, Houston. Born in 1889, he was a member of U.S. Army Company C, 161st Depot Brigade in World War I. This depot brigade processed incoming troops at Camp Grant, Ill., and trained them before they were sent overseas.


According to MilitaryHistoryOnline.com, “although comprising just 10 percent of the entire United States population, blacks supplied 13 percent of inductees” during what was then known as the Great War. Most were limited to labor battalions. The combat elements of the U.S. Army “were kept completely segregated” until the War Department created primarily black combat units in 1917 and assigned them to the French Army. Blacks could not serve in the Marines, and could only serve in limited and menial positions in the Navy and Coast Guard.


“Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps … there were reports of blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks,” according to the military history website article authored by Jami Bryan.


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