Why Preserve Black Cemeteries?

Pennsylvania’s African American cemeteries are hallowed ground. They are burial sites created primarily for and by African Americans. At these sites, we honor the lives, contributions, and memories of all those who have come before us.

At these cemetery’s, we can walk the ground where African American ancestors walked. We can be in the presence of our departed loved ones and honor their lives and memories.

Our cemeteries are living museums where we can stand face to face with the past—sharing the stories of those who contributed in so many ways to our families, our communities, our nation, and our world.

They are the sites where we recognize those who were enslaved—both those who died in bondage, and those who rose up to start new lives of freedom. At their grave sites, we confront the unspeakable evils of slavery–the brutality, the inhumanity, and the violence that existed in our nation, in our state, and in our local communities. By honoring the final resting places of these ancestors–many whose names we do not know–we affirm their humanity and assert their right to honor, to dignity, and to justice.

Our cemeteries are the sites where we honor the African American men and women who served our country in the United States Armed Forces, including the 8,612 Pennsylvania men who proudly served the Union Army in the United States Civil War as part of the United States Colored Troops, and those who served our nation as sailors with the United States Navy.

We also recognize the importance of these burial grounds as important historic sites in their own right with landscapes that embody the history, culture, lives, faith and traditions of Pennsylvania’s African American communities. All are unique space where the land, the vegetation, the monuments, the rituals, and even the feeling of the spaces reflect each community’s own interpretation of how best to honor their beloved dead.

As racially separated burial grounds, these cemeteries often reflect the legacy of racism and segregation.  Some formed because communities barred African Americans from church and public cemeteries, and instead forced African Americans to bury their dead in separate spaces. The segregated burial grounds often lacked the resources of white cemeteries and were frequently located in remote or undesirable parts of their communities. Our historic African American cemeteries are artifacts of segregation that force us to confront our society’s racist past.

They also reflect African American agency and cooperation. Many cemeteries were formed intentionally by African Americans as Black-controlled spaces where communities could honor their dead in the ways they saw fit. Those spaces demonstrate the spirit, organization, and power of the African Americans whose hands created, shaped, and maintained those hallowed grounds over the decades and centuries.

They are vital sources of historical evidence. In many locations throughout Pennsylvania, historic African American cemeteries are the last physical traces bearing witness to African American communities that once flourished throughout the commonwealth. They are powerful reminders of the contributions that African Americans made in communities that may no longer have a living African American presence. As historic spaces, they remind us that African Americans have lived, worked, and contributed to life in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Every African American cemetery is unique, and all should be preserved for the special insights they offer into African American history and life. Collectively, they provide a rich and powerful living textbook of African American history across the centuries. We need to treasure every page and preserve every cemetery to ensure we can tell the full story of American history.

Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds exists to ensure that every African American cemetery and burial ground in our state is protected and preserved, and that every individual laid to rest in these historic hallowed grounds can experience an eternity of peace and dignity. We want Pennsylvania to be a place where all people are honored and treated with respect–both in life and in death.