Respect for the Dead at Harrisburg’s Lincoln Cemetery

I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries. There’s just something that is so intriguing about visiting the final resting place of dozens – possibly even hundreds – of people and wondering about what kinds of lives they led. Considering this interest of mine, it’s likely unsurprising that I immediately volunteered to work on the Lincoln Cemetery project as supported by the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah University.

The Lincoln Cemetery is a historically Black cemetery located on the edge of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or, more specifically, in Penbrook, Pennsylvania. As is the case for many cemeteries, it has fallen victim to numerous causes of disrepair, from overgrowth to the decaying of grave markers to even being used as a dirt bike course at one point. However, the grassroots group SavingOurAncestorsLegacy (SOAL) has stepped up to not only restore the cemetery itself by uncovering buried grave markers and repairing damaged ones, but also to assure that no stories of the people buried there ever become lost to history. That’s where I’ve had the privilege to come in and lend a hand.

An overhead view of the Lincoln Cemetery as of fall 2022, captured through a drone survey carried out by our collaborators at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

As I had discussed in a previous blog post, I’m not very tech-savvy. Therefore, the prospect of learning how to use ArcGIS, a rather complicated mapping tool that I’ve never even heard of prior to this semester, was quite intimidating. In addition to physical restoration of the cemetery, the team at SOAL aims to create a digital interactive map that will allow users to learn about the people buried there simply by clicking on a grave marker, an honorable goal that I’m extremely proud to be contributing toward.

Thanks to the support of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, SOAL has gained access to numerous high-quality aerial photographs of the Lincoln Cemetery via a drone survey. These images have proven themselves to be invaluable components of the project, allowing for the commencement of the digital interactive map initiative during the past several weeks.

SOAL members and Messiah University students watching a demonstration of the Harrisburg University drone survey at the Lincoln Cemetery on September 19, 2022.

My first task – a nice, easy introduction into ArcGIS – was to place a point on anything that appeared to be a grave marker. Even though I may have placed some of them on broken pieces of the same grave marker out of concern for being thorough, I nevertheless saw for myself just how many people were laid to rest in the Lincoln Cemetery: around 1500 of them.

A completed set of points on each grave marker. The overlay shows where each grave sits in relation to the six cemetery blocks, labeled A through F. All overlays and maps for this project were scanned by the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

Next, it was time to learn how to georeference. With plenty of assistance from my professor, I had previously georeferenced the overlay in the above image, but now it was my turn to fully take the reins. Each block needed to have its corresponding map stretched to as close of a fit as possible, which I soon learned was easier said than done; due to being several decades old, the maps weren’t always perfect fits for the modern cemetery blocks, leaving the approximations up to my judgement. I would later learn that the block locations on these maps aren’t quite as accurate as previously thought, but SOAL has provided on-site checks that will help us to correct any inaccuracies going forward.

The modern cemetery blocks (left) versus the georeferenced maps (right).

My most recent task, and the one that I’ve just completed at the time of writing this, was to label each individual marker with an identifier that will make locating them a breeze. For example, a point with the identifier “B12.4” is the fourth grave marker in column 12 of the B block. Some might view this work as tedious, but I see it as rather calming, especially knowing that someday, these identifiers will become associated with real-life people who are buried in the cemetery, helping to convey their stories to anyone who visits the future interactive map online.

The E block, demonstrating how labeled points appear to the viewer in ArcGIS.

Each and every person buried in the Lincoln Cemetery has dignity and value and deserves to be remembered as such. As a Black cemetery, it also serves as a reminder of the influential African Americans who contributed to Harrisburg’s development, many of whom were laid to rest there. From William Howard Day to T. Morris Chester, these unsung heroes had major impacts on the city, whether or not they have become widely known for it. However, most importantly, the Lincoln Cemetery is comprised of people, extraordinary accomplishments or not. These people have families and legacies that deserve to be preserved, and I’m determined to assist SOAL in their goal of making that happen.

The SOAL team working on the restoration of the Lincoln Cemetery.

When I first visited the cemetery and saw several collapsed headstones and half-buried gravestones, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “These are people.” That’s when I knew that this digitization project, this future interactive map that I was helping to create, would surely make a difference.

Rachel Petroziello is a junior history major with a concentration in public history and a minor in pre-law at Messiah University. She also works as Dr. John Fea’s student research assistant and is currently serving as a student fellow at Messiah University’s Center for Public Humanities.

2 thoughts on “Respect for the Dead at Harrisburg’s Lincoln Cemetery

  1. Very informative. So many of the past remain unrecognized, putting a “face” on these persons is truly honoring them. History IS relative to our future. Great work by the writer and all who assisted.

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