Lincoln Cemetery, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Letter from George F. Nagle,
published under the "As I See It" column in The Patriot-News,
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 2002. We present this article to commemorate the
life of Thomas Morris Chester (1834-1892), in whose honor a school building in
the Harrisburg School District is to be dedicated in October, 2004.
About fifty people gathered recently under gray skies in a historic Penbrook cemetery to honor one of Harrisburg's most interesting nineteenth century citizens. With song, prayer, an American Legion honor guard and words of praise and respect, these persons unveiled a refurbished grave marker at Lincoln Cemetery for Thomas Morris Chester, whose extraordinary life included periods spent as a distinguished scholar, educator, war correspondent, lawyer, statesman and diplomat. Local descendants of Chester stood next to African-born descendants, admiring the newly raised and corrected gravestone and renewing family ties that spanned two continents. Cameras flashed, people shook hands, embraced and shared their history and heritage as flags of the United States and Liberia-the two nations dearest to Chester-fluttered in the strengthening breeze.
The cause of this remarkable gathering was a man whose tombstone, which was weathered, partially sunken and bearing an incorrect year of birth before being raised, cleaned and corrected, gave no clue to a life that was equally remarkable. Born in Harrisburg in 1834 to Jane and George Chester, Thomas Morris showed an early interest in the law. At sixteen, the young man undertook a difficult journey to study at Allegheny College, near Pittsburgh. He excelled in his studies and took an active part in the volatile politics of the day, returning to Harrisburg an advocate of the colonization of Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, by African Americans. Chester was dedicated to the colonization movement, despite severe criticism from within the African American community, and emigrated in 1853.
He returned to the United States the following year to further his education at Thetford Academy, Thetford, Vermont, where he immersed himself in classical studies and honed his debating skills. When he returned to Liberia in 1855, it was as a teacher, and he later branched out into journalism with the Star of Liberia, a newspaper published in the national capital of Monrovia. Chester made numerous trips between the United States and Liberia while war clouds gathered over the nation of his birth. He left family in the colony when he finally returned to the United States, as the fires of civil war engulfed his homeland. His son Samuel was reared by an uncle and given the family surname Richardson--the name shared by many of those in attendance at Lincoln Cemetery.
Chester captained one of two companies of Harrisburg African American men, organized by the Black community when Confederate forces threatened the town in June 1863. Their service was spurned by the Union commanders, however. Later in the year he went to England, where he lectured in support of the Union cause, and upon his return to America in 1864 was hired by the editor of the Philadelphia Press as a war correspondent with the Army of the James. He reported extensively on the role of African American troops in the war, and championed African American rights in post-war Richmond. He returned to England in 1866 as an emissary of the Garnet Equal Rights League of Harrisburg, and from there undertook a tour of the continent, ultimately dining in St. Petersburg with the Czar of Russia and reviewing imperial troops. It was not the last time Chester would be presented to the royal courts of Europe. But it was back in London that Chester finally achieved his dream of practicing law, as in 1870 he was called to the English bar.
Chester put his legal and political talents to use in New Orleans, where he became embroiled in the factional fighting of post war reconstruction. He received a commission of Brigadier General in the Louisiana state militia in 1873, and in 1875 was appointed superintendent of public education for the First Division, and later superintended the Fifth Division. The return of Democrats to power in Louisiana in 1877 brought Chester's return to Harrisburg, and he held several federal positions through 1883, some of which kept him in the south, particularly in New Orleans. He dabbled in railroad building, accepting the presidency of the Black-owned Wilmington, Wrightsville and Onslow Railroad in North Carolina, but it failed, and he again concentrated on his law practice. In 1888 he and his wife, Florence returned to New Orleans, where they remained until illness brought Chester back to his family home in Harrisburg, where he died in 1892.
His gravestone, though refurbished, gives none of these details beyond birth and death. Nor do most of the humble stones in this old burial ground, but the stories are out there to be told by local historians, like Calobe Jackson, Jr., of Harrisburg. Jackson eagerly pointed out others to the visiting crowd, and regularly visits the cemetery to locate more historic graves. William Howard Day is there, the first African American to head an all white school district, an accomplishment that only hints at a life every bit as amazing as Chester's. Jackson noted that W.E.B. DuBois came to Harrisburg to speak at Day's funeral. Near the gate is the tomb of Joseph Popel, who in 1850 charged into a crowd of slave catchers on the steps of the county courthouse in Harrisburg to try to rescue three fugitive slaves. The slave catchers beat Popel severely, but two slaves escaped in the melee.
Ella Mae Simmons is chairperson of the cemetery committee of Wesley Union AME Zion Church, which owns Lincoln. She participated in the ceremony honoring Chester and eagerly pointed out the memorial to people of African ancestry who participated in all wars, in the corner of the cemetery. Although it seems to be set apart, surrounded by open ground, the lots around it are full. “That's where the slaves are buried,” she said, “but they don't have any headstones.”
Though Lincoln Cemetery is a historic treasure, Simmons is worried about its future. Lots are available but new interments are rare. Money to support routine maintenance is a serious financial burden for the church. African American cemeteries across the country, including many in Pennsylvania, face similar circumstances, some with disastrous consequences. Some have fallen into severe states of neglect, leading to vandalism and the loss of historic headstones. Over time memory of the burial ground fades, and development can eat up what was once consecrated ground, paving over forgotten graves with asphalt. The land has become coveted, as urban sprawl reaches toward the once-undervalued ground utilized by African Americans to bury their dead.
Though Lincoln seems secure, separated from the surrounding rows of homes by a sturdy fence, can it survive severe financial pressures to teach future generations about the heroism, perseverance and passions of Harrisburg's historic Black community? Surveying the well-tended rows of serene granite and marble, the thought of this site choked by rampant undergrowth and threatened by bulldozers seems preposterous. But how many seasons does it take for decay to set in when the money runs out? And beyond routine maintenance, where will money come from to fix broken monuments and restore those whose inscriptions are disintegrating from acid rain? To Ella Simmons, the challenge of maintaining the cemetery seems as imposing as the large obelisk dedicated “in memory of the colored soldiers and sailors of Dauphin C. who gave their lives for the Union in the rebellion and to the unknown dead.” She has talked to local politicians, seeking help, but so far has received no responses beyond vague statements that something should be done.
Perhaps it will take a groundswell of support to urge county support for an educational resource that is as important as a library, and as irreplaceable as an old family photograph, for Lincoln Cemetery is both. All of the tombstones are bookmarks to favorite stories--stories about Harrisburg families. But when they disappear, as they surely will without support over time, who will gather around with flags, cameras and honor guards, as we saw this past weekend, to recall the names, the places, and the deeds?
On September 21, 2002, a new tombstone for T. Morris Chester was unveiled during a special ceremony honoring his accomplishments. Click here for photos of that ceremony. Photographs by George F. Nagle.
Known Burials at Lincoln Cemetery:
Original material on this page
copyright 2004 Afrolumens Project.
Photographs by George F. Nagle, copyright 2004. No use without permission.
The url of this page is http://www.afrolumens.org/rising_free/lincoln/chester02.html
This page was updated August 21, 2004.