Yesterday 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.
When 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.
My 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.
For 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.
(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.
So 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.
These 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.
Think, 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?
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.
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.
I 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
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.
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.
I 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.”
This 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?
(Check out all the photos taken October 1st HERE.)