Study of early black residents in Mercersburg revives interest

June 07, 1998


Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Zion Union Cemetery, isolated at the end of dead-end Bennett Avenue in Mercersburg, is marked with some very old gravestones, some no longer readable, others knocked over.

Still, the stones tell stories of the black men and women who came to the community in the late 18th century, the bravery of young black men who answered the call of a country that was not really theirs during the Civil War, and their continuing history through the end of the 20th century.

Mercersburg's first black residents were either freemen, slaves freed through the efforts of religious or community leaders or runaway slaves from the South.


As early as the 1820s, a few black residents owned their own homes on what is now Fayette Street, where many of Mercersburg's black men and women still live.

Others lived in rural areas surrounding the borough. Many worked as farmers or laborers but a few had learned skills like carpentry and blacksmithing.

At 1 p.m. today, the Mercersburg Architectural Review Board will display for the first time a brochure titled "African American Historic Sites of Mercersburg a Living Legacy," in ceremonies at St. John Lutheran Church Hall on Linden Avenue.

The brochure was produced in part with grant money from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, the same agency that helped to fund a research project on the community's black history in 1991.

The researcher then was Nancy Van Dolsen, a University of Delaware student who did the project as part of her doctoral studies.

The brochure features some of Van Dolsen's work, along with research by John Mohr, a local historian who has focused on Mercersburg's black history in recent years.

Mohr's research in the brochure deals mostly with black men from Mercersburg who fought for the Union after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

In all, 88 local black men enlisted. Half of them ended up in either the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made famous in the movie "Glory," or its sister unit, the 55th Massachusetts, according to Mohr. Of the 30 who went into the 54th, 19 became casualties.

Mohr found that 38 Civil War soldiers from the two Massachusetts and other units are buried in Zion Cemetery. Others were buried in a small cemetery on Park Street on the site of the town's first black school and church.

Mohr said he doesn't know where his research will end up, other than in the 10,000 brochures that have been printed.

His research is ongoing, he said. "I don't know. My primary sources are lots of letters and diaries. I don't know if there will be a book someday."

He said he doesn't know why he spends so much time researching black history, other than that he feels it has to be done.

He's also worried what will happen to the cemetery.

So is Eileen Watson, 73, who in recent years has been the only person responsible for its maintenance. She's using money that her aunt, Mary Bailey, left in a small endowment for the upkeep of her own grave to maintain the entire cemetery, work that mainly involves keeping the grass mowed, she said.

Watson's grandparents, parents, two brothers, including her twin, and her husband are buried in Zion Cemetery.

She said interest in the cemetery has waned along with the declining population of older black residents in town.

"There are only three or four people left in their 80s. There are a lot of young families starting out and they don't seem to take an interest in the cemetery," she said.

In the early 1960s, the cemetery was in such disrepair that "you couldn't find the lots because all the trees that had grown up. I made up my mind to never let it grow up again," Watson said.

Black residents formed a cemetery board to clean up and maintain the cemetery. Many have since died off or left, leaving Watson the last remaining active member.

She said there is renewed interest among blacks in town because of Mohr's research. "I'm really proud of what John has done," she said.

Watson said a community meeting will be called soon to organize a new cemetery maintenance board, "so that when I'm gone, someone else will get hold of it."

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