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Historic African American cemeteries in Pennsylvania get preservation grants

  • By Sydney Roach/WPSU
Eastern Light Cemetery in Altoona is getting $2,000 for preservation work.

 Sydney Roach / WPSU

Eastern Light Cemetery in Altoona is getting $2,000 for preservation work.

Thirteen African American cemeteries in Pennsylvania, including ones in Altoona and Bellefonte, are getting grants for preservation work.

Eastern Light Cemetery in Altoona is getting $2,000. The cemetery was created in 1865 when a family tried to have a relative buried in what was then an all-white cemetery and was told no. So four members of the Black community bought the land next to Oak Ridge Cemetery to serve as a burial place for African Americans in Altoona.

Harriett Gaston is the chair of a community organization that documents African American history in Central Pennsylvania. Gaston said this grant will help repair the cemetery’s fence, remove a dying tree and put a sign back up.

“Hopefully we also reach out to other organizations, be it military, veteran organizations, boys and girls scouts, organizations, churches, and others with an interest in history, so that they can get involved and help maintain it, and keep telling the story after other folks like me are gone,” Gaston said.

A consultant will also help put together a plan to honor and memorialize those buried.

“There are at least six United States Colored Troops soldiers that are buried in the cemetery. And in many ways, that’s what the grant wants us to address, to bring their stories to life for people,” Gaston said.

Gaston said William Smith is another notable person buried in Eastern Light Cemetery. Smith was the first Black person to graduate from Altoona High School.

Charles Nesbitt is also buried in Eastern Light Cemetery. He was the son of William Nesbitt, who is considered the primary Underground Railroad conductor in Blair County.

Gaston said she hopes these grants can inspire preservation work at other cemeteries across Pennsylvania.

“We started with this one small cemetery. And that makes other people wonder who else is buried elsewhere? And their histories? And how do we bring that forward so that people can have a pride of those folks who are buried there?” Gaston said.

Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds and Preservation Pennsylvania announced these grants on June 9th. Funding comes from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund through the National Trust for Historic Preservation with support from The JPB Foundation and The 1772 Foundation.

Union Cemetery in Bellefonte is also a grant recipient and will receive a consultant site visit to find out what work needs done. Union Cemetery, unlike Eastern Light, is not getting direct funding.

Renea Nichols, a volunteer board member at the Bellefonte Cemetery Association, said the biggest challenge is to figure out where everyone is buried and find a way to make sure they are remembered. Union Cemetery became racially integrated in 1897 before many others in the area. African Americans were still buried in a separate section, often without headstones.

“You might have had a stick and then it went away or whatever, but there was no granite or marble headstone there. So, unfortunately, that’s what has happened in our cemetery,” Nichols said.

Nichols hopes to give every buried person a monument and mark where their graves are.

“They absolutely deserve us trying to make sure that their memory is honored by having, [if] nothing else, a tombstone that has their name on it and some of their life story,” Nichols said.

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