the important things, visiting an old friend, and every day heroes

dsc_8277Yesterday while many were posting photos of their interrupted Opening Night Gala (the Philadelphia Orchestra went on strike again) I was taking photos of something that I think matters a little more: 184 years of history unearthed from the weeds, overgrowth and underbrush. Ebenezer AME and her graveyard on Bacton Hill Road.

dsc_8252When Al Terrell posted on the Save the Ruins and Cemetery of Ebenezer AME Church Frazer PA Facebook page and said he was going to get the weeds cleared I was so grateful to hear of his interest and the interest of Willistown Boy Scout Troop 78 I was truly happy.  But at the same time I wasn’t sure if it would happen.

It.Is.Happening!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

dsc_8168My personal dealings with regional and national folks in the AME Church were mostly negative and had made me a little dejected.  Kristin Holmes had written such a beautiful article on Ebenezer this past July, and then….nothing. Heck I even sent Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr an email to his office at Harvard. Even he didn’t respond. Neither did Lonnie Bunch from the brand new Smithsonian African-American History Museum.

dsc_8159For the past few years, I have been writing about this.  I see the importance of this site intertwined with its 184 years of individual history combined with the 200-year-old history of the AME Church founded by freed slave Benjamin Richard Allen.  (The AME Church as all know celebrated its 200th anniversary this year in Philadelphia.)

Allow me to quote from Kristin Holmes’ article from July:

The parcel’s 1832 deed of trust transfers ownership of the land from James Malin, a prominent Quaker farmer involved in the Underground Railroad, to three African Americans – “Samuel Davis, Ishmael Ells, and Charles Kimbul” – for the purpose of constructing a church with a burial ground in East Whiteland.

Ebenezer’s floor was a raised platform on stone piers, according to research by archival consultant Jonathan L. Hoppe, for the Chester County Historical Society. Its single room had a door facing the road; opposite was the raised pulpit. The interior walls were covered in wainscoting.

ebene

(See deed of trust by clicking on it.)

I first photographed Ebenezer in 2013. Then June 2016 when the Inquirer article was in process. Then yesterday, October 1, 2016.

dsc_8184So Al and I have been messaging back and forth.  He and the scouts from Willistown have been clearing brush.  Trust me, you remember the photos from June.  It was a horrible mess with 10 and 12 foot weeds and more. A complete sea of poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Brambles, wild weed trees.  Completely sad and crazy.

As we drove up yesterday to meet with Al Terrell for a little bit, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I almost couldn’t focus my eyes from the tears that kept welling up.

dsc_8198These aren’t my people, this isn’t my religion or church, yet those souls buried there mean something to me. It all started with a soldier named Joshua.  Al Terrell visits Joshua too.

To see the weeds disappearing and to see graves I had not even seen three years ago was almost overwhelming it made me so happy.

dsc_8241Think, just think, of what the people buried here saw. The history they lived through.  Slavery. Becoming free.   How can we as a society which values our freedoms and ancestors let these people disappear without trying?

We can’t.

Before me, the poet Ann Christie also tried to save this graveyard.  She and I met and became new friends because of Ebenezer.  Then cancer took her from her daughter and family this past spring.

I promised Ann in her last months of life I wouldn’t give up.  And I almost did. Until Al Terrell, Joe Rubino and scouts from Willistown came along with volunteers from Al’s bible study, a wonderful lawn service gentleman and more.

I walked around taking it in. I visited the Reasons, who still to this day have family in Malvern and East Whiteland and elsewhere local.  Al says to me that our friend was waiting.  Joshua Johnson.dsc_8229

When I saw Joshua’s grave unearthed from all the weeds and debris once again my eyes were so filled with tears I really couldn’t speak for a couple of minutes. My friends will tell you that is a rare occasion.

dsc_8146I also saw graves that we have never seen before.

The whole time I was there with Al Saturday morning, cat birds sat on the fence and nagged and scolded us. To me it was a good omen. And I have to tell you when you visit this graveyard you will notice an extraordinary thing – it’s not a sad or creepy place — it’s a very peaceful place that felt somehow inexplicably  happy that people cared about it once more.

The history these people lived was remarkable.  I can’t imagine being born a slave, and some of the people buried here were freed slaves.  Like one gentleman in particular whose grave was discovered by boy scouts today, Hiram Woodyard.  Hiram was also our other USCT member – a black Civil War soldier.

Willistown Troop 78 scouts discovered Hiram today. ~Al Terrell photo

Willistown Troop 78 scouts discovered Hiram today.
~Al Terrell photo

Hiram was discussed in boy scout  Eagle Scout project papers in 2010 (Malvern Troop 7 Matthew Nehring) and 1989 (Exton Troop 65 Daniel Baker).

….Only none of us have seen his grave for a very long time. So I was tremendously excited when Al texted me from the graveyard.

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Willistown Scouts cleaning up Ebenezer October 2, 2016 ~Al Terrell photo

Al and these boys and the other volunteers who have taken on the Herculean task of unearthing the graveyard and church from their green prison are my every day heroes.

They have restored my faith in people just doing the right thing.

In a day and age when every day when you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television all you see is the ugliness of humanity and political battles tearing people apart, this is what brings it all back around and takes you home to what is important. Home, hearth, faith, history, humanity.

dsc_8264I bet most people do not even know what happened in Philadelphia in 1830 right before Malin gave the AME Church this land do you?

On September 15, 1830 the first National Negro Convention was held in Philadelphia. It was the idea of a young guy from Baltimore named Hezekiel Grice.  He was a free man who was not satisfied with life due to the   “hopelessness of contending against oppression in the United States.” 

dsc_8343This first convention, which occurred before the Civil War hosted about 40 people, including Bishop Richard Allen of Mother Bethel AME Church, and founder of the AME Church. (He died in 1831 a few short months before the land to Ebenezer was deeded to Mother Bethel and/or the AME  Church.)

During the first ten years of this organization’s existence white abolitionists worked with the black members to try to come up with ways to deal with oppression and racism in this country.  The last convention of this very important yet short-lived movement which was ahead of its time was in Syracuse, NY in 1864.

(Read more at ColoredConventions.org .)

Ebenezer AME when it was first built was built within the midst of a thriving and historically important black community of which very few traces actually remain.  As people died and moved, like many other communities, it shifted, rearranged, disappeared. Which of course is yet another reason WHY Ebenezer’s preservation is so important.

There is a house that I am not sure if it still sits on Conestoga Road that freed slave and former soldier Hiram Woodyard actually built.  418 Conestoga Road.  Family members whose grandmother lived there many, many years ago when they were growing up, used to go to the graveyard and leave Hiram flowers on his grave.

The people buried here saw so many things.  All ordinary people who lived in some cases during extraordinary times.(Which makes them somewhat extraordinary to me.)  And many of these souls still have ancestors in this area today in many cases.

Ebenezer is living to see another day.  I hope as time progresses now a more permanent solution to her upkeep and preservation is found.  I would love to figure out when exactly Pennsylvania might have a year where a historical roadside marker might become a possibility.  I would like to see the Chester County Historical Society to become a little more proactive here.

I would also love it if that  Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture would take an interest.  And the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

We can’t make people care about Ebenezer even if they should care. But we should encourage them to care.  It’s worth saving, and the work has just begun.

Come on now. If you can help out Al and the scouts, contact the troop. Or post on the Facebook page Save the Ruins and Cemetery of Ebenezer AME Church Frazer PA.  Sometimes it does take a village.  In this case maybe several.

But don’t you think these souls are worth it?

I do.

(Check out all the photos taken October 1st HERE.)

dsc_8335

private joshua johnson and the other old souls at ebenezer a.me. on bacton hill road in east whiteland

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Someone asked me what it was that made me want to save the graves in the ruins of the Ebenezer AME on Bacton Hill Road in East Whiteland or what old timers in East Whiteland like to call “that old black church”.  What first moved me was the grave you see above of Private Joshua Johnson(1846-1916) who was a member of Company K of the 45th of the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War.

How could he just be abandoned by his church? How could the others? These are people’s ancestors – you know like William Reason who died in 1892? joseph Thomas who was born in 1751? (list below at end of post along with very old article excerpts courtesy of a friend.)

The most history we have on Ebenezer AME was compiled by Eagle Scouts. Daniel Baker was one.  In 1989 he wrote History of the Ebenezer AME Church on Baction Hill Road. Another Eagle Scout,   Mathew Nehring also adopted this site in 2010 and documented graves and did a clean up. Nehring put his results on Find-A-Grave .

This summer is the bicentennial celebration of the A.M.E. Church A/K/A Host of the 50th Quadrennial Session of the General Conference, African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is being held in Philadelphia before the DNC.

Oh yeah, I have tried countless times contacting the AME Church regionally and nationally since we discovered they still own the ruins of Ebenezer A.M.E.  When I did a GIANT e-mail I got some responses last year, but never any follow up. Ministers and church officials asking me to send them information and I have…so many times. And NOTHING.

Ok so NONE of these souls moldering in this forgotten graveyard aren’t my people, don’t share my race or religion, but these people belong to some descendants somewhere, right? Surely the big A.M.E church must care about Ebenezer A.M.E. right?

No. Apparently not.  I have reporters who have expressed interest, but mostly it is just regular people like me and the late Chester County poet A.V. (Ann) Christie. Yes, A.V. Christie. That is how I met her. Because of a graveyard abandoned by time and man.  She died April 7, 2016.  Those of us in East Whiteland and elsewhere who are just regular folk would love to be able to honor Ann’s memory by getting this little graveyard taken care of. She had no tie to it either. Like me she happened upon it.  I believe she helped clean it up a few times a few years ago as well.  Ann once lived nearby to the graveyard.

So yes, #thisplacematters too. 1st District A.M.E. Church is on Twitter about the upcoming bicentennial.  @1stDistrictAMEC is their handle. Maybe they need to be tweeted at to remember the ancestors buried here. They have to be someone’s people, right? The most recent local A.M.E. Church elder I sent information to was a Reverend Lett.

He never replied. It makes me wonder why I care, but I do.  These forgotten people deserve to be remembered and some of the names in the graveyard are still the names of some descendants living in Malvern and Chester County today.

A.M.E. Church does still own Ebenezer A.M.E. Someone trying to assist with research wrote to a friend a few months ago “The county still lists the owners as the African Methodist “Episcapal” [sic] Church, with a mailing address as Malvern R.D. 1. You can see then it hasn’t been used in quite a long time!”

EBene

I also sent information to Dr. Calvin H. Sydnor III Editor of the Christian Recorder. That is the official paper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I have contacted innumerable local ministers of A.M.E. Churches.

Yet there the graveyard rots on the eve of their bicentennial.  Yep, that is some way to honor the past. To honor freed slaves and civil war soldiers.

The Daily Local was kind enough this week to pick up the tale of Linden Hall. Hopefully they or SOMEONE will decide that the dead of Ebenezer A.M.E. are worth a little bit of attention.

Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery is also known as Chester Valley African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, or Valley Hill Cemetery. You can also see tombstone photos on Pennsylvania US Gen Web Archives – someone named Fred Kelso popsted them in 2008. One of his photos shows that in 2008 someone still left a Christmas wreath on the ruins of the chuch.

If you know anything about this cemetery or people buried here, please leave a comment.

And also read this fascinating write up of another cemetery probably long gone in East Whiteland – The Flat Road Amish Mennoite Cemetery.

Here is an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999:

A Lonely Battle For Black Cemeteries In This County Alone, At Least Six Are Abandoned Or In Serious Disrepair. Regulations Are Sparse, Records Mostly Nonexistent.

POSTED: August 10, 1999

Lee Carter pressed paper and pencil to the weather-ravaged tombstone inscriptions, laboring in vain to make out the faded names of the dead…..“It breaks your heart,” Carter said. “You devote your time to these things, and after a while it gets to you. You have to walk away.”

African American cemeteries are vanishing across Chester County, despite efforts of a small cadre determined to save them. At least six independent burial sites, and a seventh just outside the county, have been abandoned or are in serious disrepair, and no one knows how many may already be lost.

It is a phenomenon taking place across the country, black historians say, for reasons that include a lack of regulation, the remote locations of land granted to former slaves, and rural-urban migration…

A registry or listing of all cemeteries does not exist, Hardester said. While for-profit cemeteries are regulated by the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission and state Health Department, no group or agency regulates older fraternal or church cemeteries – where the bulk of people living in the 1800s and early 1900s are buried.

Limited state legislation exists to protect unmarked cemeteries from development and to force municipalities or churches to care for neglected or abandoned cemeteries. But Hardester said such legislation, which dates to the 1930s, is rarely invoked because it is obscure and fragmented.

So it is often left to persistent individuals to save them – such as Roger Grigson, president of the Downingtown Historical Society…..

cultural traditions may also play a role, noting that maintaining an oral record traditionally was considered more important in black culture than marking graves with elaborate headstones.

“The people who do remember the oral histories are the older people,” she said. “When they die, they take the knowledge of who’s buried where with them. It’s happening all over the place, and nobody really seems to care.”…Grigson said he spent six months calling the A.M.E. Church’s District 1 headquarters in Philadelphia and was all but ignored.

“They didn’t want to cooperate,” he said. “I called the A.M.E. over and over with no response. When I did get somebody, I was told, `Keep your nose out of it.’ ”

Renee Carey, a South Coatesville resident who is trying to create a database of the people buried in forgotten cemeteries, said she also failed to get any information from the A.M.E. Church after sending repeated e-mails to the records office….The remnants of one A.M.E. church stand next to a trailer park on Bacton Hill Road in East Whiteland. A long-forgotten cemetery surrounds the church, hidden in a jungle-like mix of tall grass, trees, rocks and moss. A headstone has become embedded in a tree trunk.

Many graves there are crudely marked with rocks, which are rounded by rain and embedded like teeth in the ground. The clearest headstone belongs to Joshua Johnson, a Civil War soldier who lived from 1846 to 1916 and whose military unit is etched on his headstone.

Township records say the land belongs to the “AME church at RD 1” in Malvern. Asa McCollum, vice chairman of the trustees for St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church in Malvern, said that the church was not affiliated with his and that the ground belonged to A.M.E. District 1.

Graves identified by Matthew Nehring:

A., H. 54

Bently, James
b. 1819 d. Jun. 12, 1849

Brown, Ann
b. 1811 d. Feb. 5, 1901

Brown, John
b. 1837 d. Apr. 17, 1852

Cogins, Jane
b. 1849 d. 1887

Curtis, Walter
b. 1879 d. Mar., 1880

Davis, Hannah
b. unknown d. Apr. 5, 1898

Edwards, Harriet
b. 1809 d. Dec. 25, 1839

Gassaway, Alice
b. 1867 d. Aug. 28, 1911

H, A E
b. unknown d. unknown

Hooper, Anna E
b. 1821 d. Feb. 23, 1868

Hooper, John
b. unknown d. Apr. 23, 1847

Hooper, Mary Ann
b. 1812 d. Jun. 22, 1889

Johnson, Howard J.
b. unknown d. Oct. 8, 1921

Johnson, Joshua
b. 1846 d. 1916

Johnson, Winfield
b. 1861 d. Jun. 22, 1907

Jones, Clara Bertha
b. unknown d. Jul. 13, 1886

Jones, Sarah
b. unknown d. Jan. 18, 1875

Jones, Sarah J.
b. unknown d. Jan. 12, 1891

Laws, John
b. unknown d. Mar. 20, 1879

Poinsley, William
b. unknown d. Aug. 20, 1906

Reason, Mary
b. 1823 d. Jun. 30, 1888

Reason, William
b. 1817 d. Nov. 26, 1892

Smith, Viola
b. Nov. 30, 1899 d. Mar. 26, 1913

Thomas, Joseph
b. 1810 d. Sep. 10, 1849

Thomas, Joseph
b. 1751 d. Sep. 16, 1840
Trowery, Mabel Bell
b. May 1, 1906 d. Nov. 1, 1906

Trowery, Pauline
b. Apr. 1, 1894 d. Sep. 25, 1906

Williams, Amelia
b. Jul. 11, 1832 d. Feb. 3, 1911

Williams, Ellen
b. unknown d. Apr. 21, 1841

Woodyard, Hiram
b. 1824 d. Dec. 20, 1900

Woodyard, Sarah B.
b. unknown d. Aug., 1896

Collection: African American Newspapers

Publication: THE CHRISTIAN RECORDER

Date: December 18, 1873

Title: NEWS FROM THE CHURCHES.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Rev. Wm. H. Davis writes from Phoenixville, December 8, 1873. MR. EDITOR:

Upon my arrival at my post I found one of my points at the Deep Valley, the church was in a bad condition, about to fall down. We tore it down and rebuilt it gain, and on last Sunday the 7th we had a good time in the Church. As my presiding elder could not be with me, I got the Rev. R. Norris of West Chester who dedicated the church anew on Sunday morning. I tried to preach, 1 Cor. XV, 57. WE took a collection and got the last dollar. In the afternoon having raised in the morning the last dollar owed on the church the Rev. W.R. Norris commenced the grand jubilee in the afternoon and selected for his text Joshua VI, 16, and the Lord blessed us. WE have a church worth two hundred dollars, today at the Deep Valley.
Collection: African American Newspapers

Publication: THE CHRISTIAN RECORDER

Date: June 7, 1883

Title: REPORT OF COMMITTEE ON MEMOIRS, —–

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

REPORT OF COMMITTEE ON MEMOIRS, —–


PHILA., PA., May 14, 1883.

To the Bishop and Conference: DEAR FATHER IN GOD, AND BRETHREN, -We, your committee, to whom was assigned the sad and solemn duty of considering the life and demise of our brethren and co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord, whom death has claimed as his since last session of the Philadelphia Annual Conference, beg leave to submit the following as the result of our labors”

Rev. Shadrach Blackson was born in Christeen, Deleware, in the year 1809. His parents being in bondage, he was born a slave. His master sold him to a Presbyterian minister in East Whiteland, Chester County, Pa., in 1814. Here he received a common religion and joined the A.M.E. Church at Valley Hill, where he held his membership for over 60 years. 50 years of this time he labored as a local preacher and was a local member of the Philadelphia Annual Conference over 39 years. He departed this life on the 18th day of March, 1883, in the full triumph of faith. He leaves a wife and three children to mourn their loss, but their loss is his eternal gain.
Collection: African American Newspapers

Publication: THE CHRISTIAN RECORDER

Date: November 20, 1890

Title: —– —–

Author: REV. J.M. PALMER, P.E.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Downingtown circuit under Bro. Reuben L. Patterson is showing signs of improvement worthy of one of far more experience. Membership and interest both increasing.

A genuine quarterly meeting was hat at Ebenezer (Valley Hill) recently began Saturday morning, with preaching by five of the brethren. The great spiritual feast on the Sabbath old fathers declared had not been equaled in many years. Downingtown will soon have a new church. We are confident the people have a mind to work.
Morning Republican, January 27, 1894
Revival meetings were started at the Ebenezer A.M.E Church, near Bacton, on Sunday evening. They are being conducted by the pastor, Rev. R. L. Patterson.
Morning Republican, May 31, 1899
The colored people of Bacton will give a strawberry and ice cream festival on Henry Tinson’s lawn, on mile west of Bacton, Saturday night, June 10th, for the benefit of Ebenezer A.M.E. Sunday School. Committe of arrangements: Henry Tinson, Annie Tinson, Lundon Asparagras, Mary Asparagras, Susan Thomas, Ameilia Johnson, Lydia Wilson. All are welcome.
Morning Republican, December 26, 1899
The Ebenezer A.M.E. Sunday School of Bacton will give their Christmas entertainment in Bacton Hall on Saturday night. There will be recitations, dialogues and singing by the school, and tree sharing and treats for the scholars, after which there will be a sale of refreshments and oysters for the benefit of the Sunday School treasury. The committee of arrangements consists of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Tinson, Mr. and Mrs. Louden Asparagus, Mrs. Amelia Johnson, Mrs. Susan Thomas, Miss Lydia Johnson, Miss Laura Jacson (sic), secretary.
Daily Local News, April 11, 1934
Visitors in the Chester Valley speak of the little building which was once well-known as the colored Baptist Church of Bacton. It has been unused for services for some time, but is yet in fair condition, with the old-fashioned box and pews and the coal oil lamps, and beneath the building the groundhogs have been sleeping in comfort during the past winter. Many old stories are told about that church and the enthusiastic meetings held in other days.