People connect with family history in black cemetery
NORTH YORK, Pa. (AP) — Wayne Scott Sr. spent 50 years looking for his three brothers.
He knew where they were. He just needed help uncovering them.
Like many deceased black individuals from York County, these brothers — who died within hours of their births — were buried in Lebanon Cemetery in North York, the largest black cemetery in York County. But as years went by, those graves and many others in the cemetery were covered by dirt and overgrown grass, making it difficult for many to locate the resting places of their loved ones.
Thanks to a recently launched community effort, Scott was able to find his brothers a few weeks ago.
“I fell down and broke down in tears,” the 62-year-old Scott said of the moment he found the graves. “Me and my stepfather, we walked around for years looking for them, even when he had one leg.
“When I found them, it went to my heart.”
Scott is not the only York County resident to rediscover and reconnect with his family’s history through Lebanon Cemetery. Recent efforts to uncover graves, plant flowers and mark the graves of veterans with American flags has allowed a number of individuals to learn about their ancestors and black history in York.
On a recent Saturday morning, about 20 individuals braved the sweltering heat to volunteer at the cemetery.
“We’ve been able to reconnect families,” Samantha Dorm, one of the leading volunteers, said. “I had two family members that passed (away) this year that are buried right here. I just saw a need to help out.
“It’s time for my generation and the ones behind me to step up.”
How the effort started
Located right off Route 30 on George Street in North York, the five-acre Lebanon Cemetery dates back to 1872. More than 270 veterans from the Civil War through the Vietnam War are buried there.
It is now the resting place for blacks, whites and Hispanics.
Caretakers Gloria and Gary Beattie handle the general upkeep of the cemetery. Dorm credited them for their efforts, but said she and other volunteers realized it would take a greater effort from more individuals to give the historic cemetery the care it deserves.
“We said to them, ‘You’ve been doing this for a long time. We appreciate you, we thank you, let us be your laborers,’” Dorm said. “That’s really how this grew with getting folks out here.”
Dorm has been involved in three cleanups at the cemetery the last three months, but the idea to organize an effort to improve the site began a few years ago with Scott’s son, Wayne Scott Jr.
According to his father, Scott Jr. would often go to the cemetery to visit the grave of his close friend, former York High student and basketball player Ricardo “Boo” Banks, who died in 2007.
Scott Jr. would do his best to clean up the cemetery, and he eventually reached out for help to Tina Charles, who began researching and documenting the people buried there.
Now, Scott Jr., Charles and Dorm are leading the effort to uncover as many graves and reconnect as many families as they can.
“I don’t know the exact numbers, but I think we are probably upwards of 200 graves that have been uncovered since I’ve been involved in May,” Dorm said. “We’re pulling back the grass, brushing them off so we can see the names and keeping track of them so people can find their loved ones.”
Reconnecting family members
For some individuals, visiting and caring for the Lebanon Cemetery has been a life-long experience.
Lisa Nelson, a 48-year-old Dover resident and Dorm’s cousin, said she visited the cemetery twice a summer with her grandmother, Lois Nelson, when she was growing up in York.
As a black child living in what was by then an integrated community, Nelson didn’t fully understand why her grandmother cared so much about the cemetery where many of their family members were laid to rest.
Things started to make sense to her when she was 19 and the cemetery came up during a conversation with Lois, who worked as aide in the York City School District.
“We were talking about people laid to rest here, and I said, ‘Grandma, your grandma and your great-grandma could read and write?,’” Nelson said. “Her head spun around and she said, ‘Of course my grandma could read and write.’
“That wasn’t the perception I had been given. We’re talking about women born in the 1800s and they could read, write and made sure my grandma went to school. That stuff I took for granted, so when I walk through this journey, it became personal for me.”
Nelson has 17 family members buried in Lebanon Cemetery, some of whom have connections locally and nationally. Her cousin is 72-year-old Pro Football Hall of Fame member Art Shell, who also has ancestors buried there. Shell became the NFL’s first black head coach since the 1920s when the Los Angeles Raiders hired him in 1989.
When Nelson first talked to Charles and Dorm about volunteering at the cemetery, she said she “was being tuned up for this job for a mighty long time.” In fact, the last words her grandmother said before she died in 2012 was to request that Nelson put flowers by their ancestor’s graves.
Today, Nelson’s two grown sons spend time visiting the cemetery.
“Their eyes will open up one day and they’ll realize that these people are a part of their life journey,” Nelson said. “And if these folks weren’t around, there would be none of them. That’s really important for anyone to understand that.”
One of Nelson’s biggest motivations for cleaning up the cemetery is to help people understand what those buried there have accomplished. Through her research, she discovered individuals like James Smallwood, who started a school in York, and George Bowles, a doctor and community leader.
Ultimately, the biggest goal of the effort is to help individuals find the graves of their family members.
The group of volunteers has already made progress in that area by posting the names on uncovered graves to websites like findagrave.com. Dorm said she’s been contacted by people across the country who have ancestors buried in Lebanon Cemetery.
Dorm, who writes grants for a living, said she eventually hopes to get the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places in order to preserve the land, and to secure grants that would help with the maintenance of the site.
“This is not a short-term thing,” Dorm said. “The emphasis is reconnecting families. That’s a much more tangible response for me.”
Facts about Lebanon Cemetery
The first burial dates to 1873.
The original cemetery was two acres with entry off of North George Street.
Before 1904, more than 600 burials had taken place.
More than 270 veterans - ranging from the Civil War through the Vietnam War - are interred here.
36 Civil War veterans are buried in Lebanon Cemetery.
Several Spanish American War veterans’ graves are located on the grounds.
The cemetery is the final resting place of the first York City resident to die in the Korean War - Roger Ballard.
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com