Decades of Black history were lost in an overgrown Pennsylvania cemetery until a group of volunteers unearthed more than 800 headstones


North York, Pennsylvania
CNN
 — 

Before she became one of America’s most-decorated Special Olympics athletes, before the made-for-TV movie and the shared stages with actor Denzel Washington and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Loretta Claiborne was a great-granddaughter – of one Anna Johnson.

Johnson died mysteriously after the 1969 race riots in Claiborne’s hometown of York. The 84-year-old was buried in North York’s Lebanon Cemetery – which, until the mid-1960s, was one of the only graveyards in the area where African Americans could be interred.

In 2000, hoping to draw attention to the curious circumstances surrounding her great-grandmother’s death, Claiborne visited the cemetery, trying to locate Johnson’s gravestone.

She couldn’t find it. Gravity had pulled it into the earth as the cemetery fell into disrepair over the years.

Not until two decades later did Claiborne learn that a group of volunteers called Friends of Lebanon Cemetery had found Johnson’s grave marker. Co-founder Samantha Dorm had read about Claiborne’s fruitless attempts to find the headstone, and her group invited the multi-sport gold medalist to visit her great-grandmother’s resting place.

But when Claiborne arrived, she found the stone filthy and barely protruding from the dirt. The H in Johnson was missing.

“They buried her and didn’t have the (respect) to spell her name right,” Claiborne, 69, told CNN. “That’s pretty poor. I was elated that I was able to find her grave, but I was not elated to see how it wasn’t respectful to her.”

The Friends group was originally told there were 2,300 people in the historic Black cemetery. In the more than three years they’ve been working, they’ve found at least 800 buried headstones in the cemetery, many previously undocumented. Most were a few inches beneath the surface, some a few feet.

Cemetery records, newspaper articles and ground-penetrating radar now indicate more than 3,700 souls rest at Lebanon – many of them tightly situated, leaving geophysicist Bill Steinhart, who has surveyed most of the cemetery, to say, “If they’re not touching, they’re nearly touching.”

Samantha Dorm poses by a headstone for the Fells family, one of many forks in Dorm's sprawling family tree.

Through research and genealogy efforts, Friends of Lebanon Cemetery also have unearthed the stories of everyday folks – schoolteachers, factory workers, chefs and barbers – who helped York thrive. They lie alongside more prominent figures, including Underground Railroad agents, suffragettes, Buffalo soldiers, a Tuskegee Airman and other veterans. Together, they connect York’s robust history to overlooked chapters of the American biography.

Dorm has since heard of many cemeteries like the 150-year-old Lebanon, forsaken because those buried there were deemed unimportant. Congress is aware. The proposed African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown and Mitt Romney, would provide funding to identify and preserve cemeteries like this one.

“For too long these burial grounds and the men and women interred there were forgotten or overlooked,” Brown said in a statement. “Saving these sites is not only about preserving Black History, but American history, and we need to act now before these sites are lost to the ravages of time or development.”

Meep-meep!

Friends co-founder Tina Charles waved a metal detector over the dirt along Lebanon Cemetery’s northern treeline. Meep-meep!

The cemetery sits amid middle-class houses and townhomes, many bearing architectural elements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Catacorner is the Messiah United Methodist Church, built in the 1950s, and behind that the sprawling Prospect Hill Cemetery, home to two Medal of Honor recipients and several White congressmen. On the north side of Lebanon sits a strip mall and the parking lot of a shuttered church.

Lebanon Cemetery dates to the 19th century and is the final resting place for more than 3,000 African Americans.

A cleanup effort drew a diverse group on a Saturday in mid-August. One gentleman walked over from a nearby neighborhood. Others arrived in cars, joining family members, Rotarians, Legionnaires and the current and former mayor.

Three dozen volunteers, men and women of all ages, pried headstones – many of them sunken or shrouded in tall grass – from the ground. Some employed a flat-head tamping bar, nicknamed “Trooper.” They scrubbed down markers, poured drainage gravel beneath them and leveled them off.

Charles summoned volunteers to explore the ground beneath the metal detector. They soon hit paydirt, extracting the heart-shaped grave marker of Carrie E. Reed, who died in 1926. Charles, who cites esoterica about the cemetery like a savant, whipped out her phone. In minutes, she learned Reed hailed from West Virginia and that her brother died in an auto wreck. Reed’s husband, Harry, is in Lebanon, too, though Charles was unsure where.

“Most of the heart ones are down by George Street,” Charles said, pointing down the hill, across the fresh-mowed grass, past the military flags. “This (part of the cemetery) wasn’t here in 1926, so that’s where she belongs.”

A Friends of Lebanon volunteer removes mildew from a headstone during a recent cleanup day.

She pondered why the 23-year-old’s gravestone was so far away from her father. Mack Winfred, his gravestone misspelled Windred, lies a couple hundred feet away. How were they separated? Vandals? Hard to say given the years of neglect, but Charles, Dorm and co-founder Jenny De Jesus Marshall vow to find out more about Reed.

Minutes after Reed’s headstone was found, another group was hatching a plan. Pfc. Floyd Suber’s headstone had slipped about 2 feet into the earth, leaving only his name, rank and company visible.

Volunteers fashioned a pulley out of thick yellow webbing and an old truck tire and heaved the marble stone from the ground. As a woman scrubbed away the soil caked to the bottom half, details of Suber’s life emerged: He was a World War I vet, one of more than 70 in the cemetery. He belonged to the 807th Pioneer Infantry Division, formed at New Jersey’s Camp Dix, one of 14 African American units that served overseas and one of seven to see combat.

Volunteers excavate the  headstone of Pfc. Floyd Suber, a World War I veteran.

The group gave itself a cheer and posed by Suber’s grave for photos. One volunteer called Dorm over to recount their ingenuity.

“That was awesome. It took a village,” said Joan Mummert, president of the York County History Center, who’d dropped in to help. She offered high praise for the Friends group, telling CNN they’ve memorialized little-known or forgotten people and given York an “expansive understanding of how people lived, their families, neighborhoods and achievements.”

Dorm, 52, is a public safety grant writer. Growing up, she was a whiz in school. Numbers came so naturally that she did math in her head and was accused of cheating because she hadn’t shown her work. Yet one subject flummoxed her.

“History was the one class I had to study for,” she said. “I didn’t know when the War of 1812 was. I really did not know, because it wasn’t relevant to me.”

In March 2019, her family gathered for the funeral of her great uncle, but the ground was so rutty and pocked with groundhog holes that they struggled getting his wife’s wheelchair graveside. They eventually prevailed because “she would not be deterred from being near her husband,” Dorm said.

This one-time guest house for Black travelers was owned by Etha Armstrong, a historical figure buried at Lebanon.

Dorm had always visited the cemetery. Her paternal grandparents and great-grandparents are there, and she’d deliver flowers on Mother’s Day and other occasions. A couple of year before her father died in 2021, she learned he’d quietly visited the cemetery for years, tending to the family’s graves.

“It’s part of why I do what I do,” she said.

Her pride in York was palpable as she led a CNN reporter through downtown, explaining how its Quaker population and the nearby Mason-Dixon Line made the city a vital layover on many former slaves’ journeys to the abolitionist strongholds of Lancaster and Philadelphia.

York is thick with history, and many handsome downtown buildings date back to the mid-1700s. It served briefly as the US capital, and the Continental Congress drafted the Articles of the Confederation in York. The famed York Peppermint Pattie was born here, as was the York Barbell company.

But Dorm focused on the lesser-told history: York had its own Black Wall Street, like Tulsa, Oklahoma’s, she said, beaming. She showed off Ida Grayson’s home, which was featured in “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” and the former site of the city’s first “colored school” helmed by educator James Smallwood, who is buried at Lebanon.

Unveiled in August was a statue of William Goodridge, a former slave turned prominent businessman. The bronze likeness now sits before his downtown home, where he hid slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad. One of the more famous “passengers” was abolitionist John Brown’s lieutenant, Osborne Perry Anderson, the only African American to survive Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Goodridge helped usher Anderson to safety, historians say.

A statue of William Goodridge sits outside his former home in  downtown York.

Grandson Glen Goodridge shares a tombstone with his mother and wife at Lebanon. For three years, the Friends searched for the grandson of another Underground Railroad conductor, Basil Biggs of Gettysburg. The grandson, also named Basil, was buried at Lebanon, but his headstone remained elusive until this year, when volunteers found it buried next to Goodridge’s – literally two steps away. Was it intentional?

Regardless, Dorm and the team were delighted to find the grandchildren of two beacons of freedom resting for eternity alongside each other.

Dorm walked through Lebanon beneath a cloudless sky, reeling off more luminaries whose gravestones or stories the Friends have discovered.

There’s Mary J. Small, the first woman elected elder of the AME Zion Church. Over there is the Rev. John Hector, “the Black Knight” of the temperance movement. Here lies William Wood, who helped build inventor Phineas Davis’ first locomotive engine.

Here is the county’s first Black elected official, and there is York’s first Black police officer – a short walk from the city’s first Black physician, George Bowles, who also had a taste for baseball and helped manage the minor-league York Colored Monarchs. Several Monarchs enjoyed success in Black professional baseball, including Hall of Fame infielder, manager and historian Sol White, who later was a pioneer of the Negro Major Leagues.

Dorm’s family is steeped in military history – after beginning work at Lebanon, she learned one of her grandfathers fought in World War II – so she never forgets the veterans. She’s presently seeking sponsors for Wreaths Across America to include Lebanon’s more than 300 veterans in the nonprofit’s mission to adorn graves at Arlington National Cemetery and 3,400 other locations.

Among those Dorm would like honored are 2nd Lt. Lloyd Arthur Carter, a Tuskegee Airman; buffalo soldier George B. Berry, who was part of the Ninth Cavalry sent to Mexico in search of Pancho Villa; and the Rev. Jesse Cowles, who escaped slavery in Virginia and fought with Union forces at age 15 before making a name for himself as a minister.

Despite this rich history, Lebanon remains a work in progress. Last month, volunteers found six more headstones, three belonging to Dorm’s relatives. She joked that her great-granddad, whose grave marker she’s still searching for, was “pushing others to the front of the line to keep me motivated.”

“It’s been crazy, in part, because I thought I was related to six or seven people in the cemetery, and now it’s more than 100 – six generations on two of my lines,” she said. “There’s a running joke when we find someone: ‘Oh, Sam’s probably your cousin.’”

Mary Wright, Bill Armstrong, Amaya Pope and Dwayne Cowles Wright, from left, tidy family members' gravestones.

Dorm’s disdain for history is no more. She’s quick to recount her own, how her relatives were among a group of 300 who migrated to York from Bamberg, South Carolina, to help fix roads – at a time when African Americans weren’t allowed in the city’s taverns and movie houses.

And she definitely knows when the War of 1812 unfolded. At least two of its veterans are buried in Lebanon.

Among the volunteers for the August cleanup were three generations of Armstrongs. Along with siblings Bill Armstrong and Mary Armstrong Wright were Mary’s son, Dwayne Coles Wright, visiting from Georgia, and his daughter, Amaya Pope, 13. Dwayne, who used to make monthly visits to Lebanon as a kid, said it’s important for Amaya to know the legacy of her “ancestors whose shoulders we’re standing on.”

Asked what brought her to the cemetery, Mary Armstrong replied simply: family.

“It’s an old cemetery,” she said, “and we try to keep it going. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to a lot of people. Some have gone on. Some can’t be here. I’d want somebody to do it for me, too.”

Bill Armstrong drove 90 minutes from Silver Spring, Maryland, to join the effort. With hand shears, he snipped at the shaggy grass obscuring the gravestone of Etha Carroll Cowles Armstrong, his grandmother, as he listed relatives spanning four generations resting at Lebanon. The family is still seeking two of its patriarchs, he said, and only last year did they find his great aunt, Clara, her gravestone misspelled “Coweles.”

That the cemetery fell into such disrepair is “somewhat disheartening and disturbing,” he said, “but I got beyond the hurt because I can’t control what folks do and don’t do. I’ve come to accept the fact that at least I know they’re in here someplace.”

Renee Crankfield, 55, has been visiting Lebanon since she was a child and used to cut through the cemetery to get to the store.

“I knew where all the graves were back then, and as we got older we couldn’t find the graves anymore,” she said, explaining that she and her mother wondered for years where Crankfield’s sister was buried (she’s since been located).

Volunteers recently found the grave marker for her great-great uncle, Whit Smallwood, not far from a groundhog hole big enough to swallow a man’s leg. But Crankfield can’t point to the precise location of her father Ervin “Tenny” Banks’ grave, which was never marked after he died in 2007.

“We didn’t have much for a headstone, but we’re going to get that,” she said. “Dad is near my sister, but we’re not sure where. Tina (Charles) knows. I would love to find him and put a marker there.”

Crankfield’s mother intends to be buried there, in a plot Banks purchased years ago. Perhaps they can share a headstone, Crankfield said, reminiscing how her father cherished not only his six children but all the neighborhood kids so much that he’d pile them into the bed of his green pickup truck and take them cruising in the country.

“He was our world,” she said.

Renee Crankfield, who has generations of her family buried in the cemetery, helps carry drainage gravel.

Crankfield, like the Armstrongs, says it’s important to keep legacies alive through stories told across generations.

“Our future depends on our children knowing their history, knowing where their families came from. We have a duty to keep that up, so their children’s children can maintain that,” she said. “It’s important that we let them know who they are.”

The youngsters in attendance get it. Amaya Pope said it “felt really accomplishing” to work on the graves and that she felt a closer connection to her family afterward.

“I think it was real cool knowing about my ancestors and where they came from and hearing their stories,” the eighth-grader said.

Claiborne, the Special Olympics athlete, never learned how her great grandmother died.

Weeks after the 1969 race riots cooled to a simmer, Anna Johnson was found that September face down in Codorus Creek, near a city park. She had bruises and signs of trauma. Her dress was bunched around her waist. Some of her clothing was strewn along the creek bank. Her purse and shoes were in the park, macerated by a lawnmower.

Authorities ruled Johnson died from a heart attack, which Johnson’s family never bought. In 1999, detectives reopened the 30-year-old cold cases of a police officer and a divorced mother visiting from South Carolina, both fatally shot in the riots.

They quizzed Claiborne and two of her siblings on Johnson’s killing. Claiborne said her family was told back in 1969 to go along with the heart attack ruling because city leaders feared news of another murder might reignite the summer’s racial violence.

Investigators ultimately chose not to reopen Johnson’s case, citing lack of evidence, Claiborne said.

“The whole thing just really, to this day, has shocked me, but life goes on,” said Claiborne, who was 16 when Johnson was killed. “We’ll never find out how she died, but God never misses a move or slips a note.”

Claiborne has traveled the world collecting medals in running, bowling and figure skating, despite being born partially blind and with clubbed feet. She’s finished more than two dozen marathons, holds three honorary doctorates, earned a black belt in karate, accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 1996 ESPYs and has appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show.

Today, she serves on the Special Olympics’ board of directors and is the games’ chief inspiration officer.

But York remains home. Claiborne still travels to North York to visit Johnson, along with her mother and grandmother, who reside on the opposite side of the cemetery near its main entrance. One day, she’d like to join them.

“That’s where I’m going to be buried, if God’s willing,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story included a mobile graphic that incorrectly identified an image of Etha Armstrong.

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