"Once Sacred But Now Defiled"

 

In the mid-nineteenth century, most Philadelphia cemeteries' charters expressly excluded "colored persons" from interment. In need of more suitable burial space and tired of being barred from the city's many large white cemeteries, a group of African Americans met in 1848 to discuss the possibility of a cemetery devoted solely to their own. They envisioned a place where the dead could rest in peace and their kin could meditate and memorialize undisturbed, and then issued a prospectus for a plot of land in South Philadelphia. Once approved, they obtained an act of incorporation for Lebanon Cemetery in January of 1849. 

The following decades would see the burials of many prominent African Americans at Lebanon. Among them were an influential member of the Masonic Order, a Grand Secretary of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a celebrated Philadelphian physician, and educator and civil rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto, whose 1871 murder at the hands of a white man drew the largest funeral procession in Philadelphia since President Lincoln's funeral train arrived in the city in 1865. Despite facing racial terror and civil rights violations with egregious regularity, an African American community in Philadelphia created a space where they hoped to preserve the rights of the dead: from dignified burial, to peaceful rest, to honorable remembrance. 

A depiction of Lebanon's steepled chapel. A closer look reveals a family or two standing near a field of gravestones, and a gated iron fence augmented by stone to secure the cemetery.

George Dubois. "Chapel of the Lebanon Cemetery." Philadelphia, PA: F. Kuhl, 1850.

A diagram printed alongside the breaking news of Lebanon's

grave-robbing on the front page of the press. Point A represents Lebanon, point C a break in the fence where a wagon waited to receive and carry away the bodies. All other points are indicators of landmarks to help nineteenth-century readers envision the body snatchers' plan of attack.

Philadelphia Press. Philadelphia, PA. December 5, 1882.

But violence against black bodies was not limited to the living. In December of 1882, after apparent months of camping out at night and observing unseemly activity in the cemetery, a reporter for the Philadelphia Press revealed an appalling discovery. The front page headline read "Graveyard Ghouls Arrested with a Cargo of Corpses... The Ghastly Work Done for Jefferson Medical College... Thousands of Bodies Taken for Dissection... LEBANON CEMETERY ALMOST EMPTY... How 'Subjects' for the Scalpel Have Been Snatched from the Grave."

 

The article itself was equally sensationalist, but the central claim was true: a group of white men had disinterred black bodies to sell to Jefferson Medical College, which used them to teach anatomy students about dissection. The report also insisted that the cemetery - "once sacred but now defiled" - had been regularly robbed for such purposes for years, and that Lebanon's vulnerability to body-snatching was in part due to "superstitious" African Americans' neglect of their ancestors burial grounds. 

 

This news elicited a furious response from the African American community. Buried pages behind the sensationalist detailing of events was a brief explication of "Indignation Meetings," at which black citizens of South Philadelphia gathered to air grievances. They advocated recourse for their beloved, desecrated dead and organized visits to the cemetery to ascertain the exact number of missing bodies. They cried for justice outside of police stations and court houses.

The apprehension and conviction of the grave-robbers brought some solace, perhaps, but their suspected overseer - Jefferson anatomy professor Dr. William S. Forbes - was easily acquitted. In the view of the medical and popular press, and ultimately the court, it was unthinkable that an intellectual gentleman of Forbes' stature would play any role in such a grim undertaking - despite any evidence to the contrary. Guilty or not, the notion that an elite white man might find himself imprisoned due to harm inflicted upon black bodies was farcical to the dominant whites of the city.

 

But this horrid grave-robbing scandal alone was not the downfall of Lebanon. Indeed, by the 1880s, the cemetery was already overcrowded, falling into disrepair, and surrounded by estate and factory owners eager to absorb the land. Once a place of sanctuary for African Americans - and a favorable distance from Philadelphia's industrial center - Lebanon was deemed a menace to the city by the turn of the century. In January of 1901, the Philadelphia Board of Health ordered its closure out of "sanitary necessity" and its residents were soon reinterred at the newly open Eden Cemetery just outside of the city.

Today, a bus stop stands at the center of where Lebanon used to be. All that remains of the cemetery are old diagrams, photographs, administrative documents, and a legacy worth remembering. Lebanon's history - from founding to scandal to closure - should be a major case study in how violence, civil rights, and empathy are distributed in America.

An image in the paper printed the day after the initial story broke. It represents the keys found in possession of one of the grave-robbers: the first opened a door at an entrance to Jefferson Medical College and to a suite of rooms where the bodies were unloaded, and the second to another door of the suite and the room where the bodies were prepared for dissection.

 Philadelphia Press. Philadelphia, PA. December 5, 1882.

"The Broken Reed of

Popular Prejudice"

 

The 1831 founding of Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery, marked by its beautiful sprawling landscape, sparked a "rural" cemetery boom across the northeast. As part of the movement, Philadelphia established Laurel Hill and Woodlands on the outskirts of the city. Fusing health, horticulture, and regeneration, these new cemeteries became wildly popular final resting places for Philadelphia's elites. On the western edge of the city, Mount Moriah soon followed. Established in 1855, this cemetery quickly grew to be the largest in Pennsylvania. It has since welcomed the interments of many thousands of individuals, including Betsy Ross, as well as veterans of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Vietnam War, and members of several church and fraternal organizations in the region. 

And yet, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1875's prohibition of racial discrimination in public spaces, Mount Moriah was also the site of an exclusionary event that precipitated a landmark Pennsylvania Supreme Court case. Henry Jones, a prominent African American businessman in Philadelphia, purchased plots without restriction at Mount Moriah for himself and his family prior to his death in 1876. But when his funeral procession arrived at the gates of the cemetery, it was halted by a segregationist group of white lot owners and cemetery authorities. They refused to let Jones' casket or kin enter the burial grounds for interment, and his relatives promptly filed suit against the cemetery. The case soon reached the highest court in the Commonwealth.

In Mount Moriah Cemetery Association v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1876), one judge explained the white lot owners' apparent objection to Henry Jones' burial and the cemetery's interment of black bodies: the notoriety that such policies would garner from white Philadelphians would also depreciate the cemetery's property value. But the majority of justices, though acknowledging the "fear of loss [to the treasury] that might result" from desegregation, together ruled that the "broken reed" of popular prejudice "never had a respectable standing," especially when "this prejudice is under the ban of recent constitutional and legal provisions."

An early twentieth-century map of Mount Moriah in all its "rural" sprawl. The front gate is located near the western edge of the abandoned cemetery.

Plan of Mount Moriah Cemetery. Philadelphia, Delaware Counties, PA. January 1, 1913.

In other words, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinforced the radical civil rights agenda of the Reconstruction era and affirmed Jones' right to be buried at Mount Moriah. And so he was.

The following year saw the end of Reconstruction, and the following decade the repeal of 1875's progressive legislation. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson would cement segregation's enforcement across the nation for most of the twentieth century. But Mount Moriah would welcome a diverse list of interments into the twenty-first century, until its abandonment after the death of its last owner.

 

Friends of Mt. Moriah, among other local organizations, have since taken up the task of restoring and preserving the vast burial ground. Its once opulent Romanesque brownstone cemetery gate, where Henry Jones and his relatives were turned away long ago, is slowly crumbling. But the historic confrontation that took place there - involving race and class and rights - remains an entry point into discussions of progress as zigzagged and restorative law.

Mount Moriah's front gate, where Henry Jones was barred from entering and interment in 1876. It is gradually falling apart, but wooden scaffolding has been installed to stabilize the structure.

Front Gate of Mount Moriah Cemetery. Philadelphia, PA. Photograph taken on March 24, 2018.

"For Those Who Shall Die 

in the Service

of the Country"

 

Perhaps there was no greater challenge to interment practices and configurations on American soil than those brought on by the Civil War. On the battlefield, it was an era in which tactics had yet to catch up to technology: with no efficient way to communicate across long distances, troops mostly fought in traditional tight order formations, and often employed newly invented, highly lethal Minié rifles. This combination, alongside poor medical comprehension and treatment of disease and infection, led to unprecedented death tolls throughout much of the nation.

 

A year after the war's outset in 1861, Congress passed an act legislating the production of the United States National Cemetery System "for those who shall die in the service of the country." It originally consisted of several military cemeteries that consolidated fallen soldiers and, by the northern end of the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia National opened its gates in 1862 to receive interments of soldiers who had died in area hospitals and camps. It expanded in the 1880s to reinter more troops from various smaller regional grave yards.

Still active today, Philadelphia National houses deceased veterans, spouses, and other military personnel from multiple wars, but its Civil War burials remain most central to its legacy. Among them are hundreds of Union soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and Confederate prisoners of war, but the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration has privileged the memorialization of some over others.

The storyboard honoring Confederate soldiers, installed in 2015. It stands at a distance from the collective burial site of those men, which is farther afield below a memorial inscribed with their names - if known. This informational panel is instead located by the side of the road running through the cemetery, making it easily accessible to visitors on foot or on wheels.

Confederate Burials Storyboard at Philadelphia National Cemetery.

Philadelphia, PA. Photograph taken on March 25, 2018.

At the request of multiple individuals and historical preservation groups, the VA has since produced and installed a storyboard to highlight the USCT as important to the history of Philadelphia National Cemetery, the region, and the nation at large. In April of 2018, the cemetery hosted Mayor Jim Kenney, as well as other politicians, historians, and Civil War re-enactors to unveil the new informational panel.

 

But as the National Cemetery System - which now includes well over a hundred cemeteries - continues to maintain thousands of graves and host commemorative events throughout the country, it is important to consider how white supremacy's reach still skews memorialization. Memorials can be potent tools: they gesture to which events and people are worth remembering, and demonstrate the power of those who get to choose which histories are honored in public spaces.  

 

Consciously or not, the privileging of white soldiers who fought to preserve the institution of slavery over black soldiers who fought to preserve the Union is more than troubling. It is reflective of a larger system that too often has favored a whitewashed past, present, and future at the expense of all others.

Philadelphia National Cemetery's front gate, leading to many rows of white marble military headstones. On the right hand side of the road stands a black monument that displays and commemorates President Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address. 

Entrance to Philadelphia National Cemetery. Philadelphia, PA. Photograph taken on March 25, 2018.

Amid the fields of white gravestones, punctuated by curved roads and American flags, the VA installed three storyboards in 2015. Intended to detail the cemetery's significance, one storyboard highlighted the cemetery as the oldest of four national cemeteries in the region, another marked the interment of the youngest brigadier general, and the last honored the 184 Confederates buried there following the Battle of Gettysburg. There was no storyboard to honor the USCT.

Why did the VA deem it appropriate to install an honorary informational panel for white soldiers who fought against the United States, but not for black soldiers who fought to preserve it? What if the omission of the latter was an accidental oversight, and what if it wasn't?

The VA's criteria for selecting the number of storyboards and their content is nebulous. But cemeteries, memorials, and storyboards outlive their initial installations and dedications: they shape popular historical memory, indicating to future generations what and who mattered. And these sites of commemoration can also be ones of neglect, bolstering sanitized narratives of the powerful while further suppressing long-discounted narratives of the marginalized.

The storyboard honoring U.S. Colored Troops, installed in 2017 after the backlash against its omission. It stands next to a segregated section of the cemetery designated for black Union troops in the 1860s. It is also located by the side of the road running through the cemetery, making it easily accessible to visitors on foot or on wheels.

U.S.C.T. Burials Storyboard at Philadelphia National Cemetery.

Philadelphia, PA. Photograph taken on March 25, 2018.