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Headstone of Charles Henderson, USCT

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African American History
in South Central
Pennsylvania:
the 19th century

Midland Cemetery
Gallery of Plot Boundary Markings

 

Midland Cemetery was recently rescued from neglect by local historian Barbara B. Barksdale, who began the Friends of Midland organizationThat organization is the best source of information on the cemetery.  They can be contacted at the following address:
Friends of Midland, P. O. Box 7442, Steelton, Pennsylvania 17113-0442.

A

lthough not unique to African American burial practice, the marking of family plot boundaries as seen at Midland Cemetery does reflect some African American traditions.  Chief among them is the home-crafted nature of many of the plot boundaries.  Unlike Euro-American style, which favors more wall-like structures, often with a formal entrance, African American plot boundaries are low, with no defined entrance.  Whereas Euro-American tradition features the family name inscribed or carved prominently on the boundary or entrance, African American plot boundaries rarely identify the family on the boundary marking.  Taken together, the low walls, lack of entrance, home crafting and lack of family identifiers seems to suggest a link to traditional African belief in the burial grounds as a whole, rather than specific family burial plots, as the dwelling place of the spirit.

 « The Terrell Family plot is graced by a memorial bench with the family name--an exception to the more common practice at Midland of not placing such identifying markers.  Note the very low boundary markings that define this large family plot.  The only identified burial in this plot is for "Bertha Terrell / 1877-1929."

See page two for a picture of this plot with the grass removed and planted with summer annual flowers.

 

»  The James Family plot is well marked with concrete edging.  Like the Terrell plot, above, the edging is low and provides only a symbolic separation from the rest of the cemetery.  

Barbara Barksdale notes that Charles R. James was a poet and a linguist, being well known in the Steelton community for his verse and for his proficiency in several foreign languages.

From left to right, the graves are for:

  • Mary S. / Wife of / Charles R. James / Aug. 6. 1852 / Mar 20. 1907
  • Cornelia James / Aug. 15, 1863 / Feb. 11, 1918
  • Charles R. James / P. Co. C, 127 Reg. U.S.C.T. Inf. / May 17, 1846. / May 15, 1924.  Three decades after the war, Charles R.  James was listed in Boyd's Steelton Directory (1894 and 1897) as a laborer, living at 168 Adams Street.  By 1919, at age 73 and a widower, Charles R. James was a grocer in the shop at 202 Adams, and living at 247 Adams Street.  He shared the residence with Charles W. and Margaret James (possibly his son and daughter-in-law).  Charles W. James was working as a yard foreman.  Two doors away, at 243 Adams, Mrs. Margaret H. James had a business as a confectioner.

« This brick outlined family plot utilizes a more accessible material for someone without masonry experience.  Some of the bricks are mortared together and some are loose, held in place only by the earth.  The flower arrangements are modern, and say "Grandma."  The overall effect is quite striking and beautiful.

 

»  The Wise Family plot uses modern pre-cast cinder block garden edging to outline individual graves.  These graves are obviously well tended.  Pine bark nuggets are used to keep grass and other wild plants from growing on the graves, a rarely seen example which may have roots in southern "scraped earth" folk cemeteries.  In scraped earth cemeteries, the grass is kept from growing on the graves because it is seen as being disrespectful to the dead.  There is some evidence that scraped earth burials came to America from West African tradition.  Few northern African American graves conform to this tradition, however.

« The Manly Family plot utilizes a mixture of African American and Euro-American burial traditions.  Wood borders pay homage to the African American use of that material on gravesites, while marble corner posts and a marble obelisk, the only such memorial in Midland cemetery, are distinctly Euro-American.  Ironically, the obelisk is an African symbol, popularized in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by returning explorers of Egypt's Nile Valley. It was adapted by European and Euro-American cultures as a memorial symbol, and became popular and even common in Victorian cemeteries.  

In fact the management of Harrisburg Cemetery, in an 1876 publication entitled Suggestions to Lot Holders, made an appeal for greater variety in the choice of monuments to mark graves:

Obelisk succeeds obelisk, etc., with only slight variations, and if this is continued, we shall see in time too dull a uniformity to strike the mind with agreeable sentiments...A correct idea, expressed in marble, may be beautiful, so long as it is unique; but by too frequent imitation and in too close proximity with its original, it may destroy the charm of the first, and ultimately raise feelings in the beholder the reverse of those desired.1
The importance placed by Harrisburg Cemetery management on diversity of design, appeal to the senses, and a desire to see patrons utilize "an improved taste in monumental sculpture," underscores the difference between Euro-American cemeteries and African American cemeteries. A romanticized version of death is presented in Euro-American cemeteries, especially those designed during the nineteenth century, when Romanticism ruled landscape design.  By presenting a park-like atmosphere, Euro-American cemeteries sought to comfort the bereaved by surrounding them with uplifting sculpture, rolling scenic vistas, and opportunities for meditation and reflection.  African American cemeteries, by contrast, seldom benefited from a master design.  Rather, they often grew out of necessity, being located on land that was of little use to the white community.  Landscaping was kept to a minimum, with native plants being used, where they were utilized at all.  The effect, and intent, was to keep the cemetery as the domain of the dead.  Comfort for the survivors was derived from knowing that the deceased was buried on land of their choosing, preferably with family, and with a funeral that showed proper respect.  Grave markers were more utilitarian than artistic, although many are wonderful examples of folk art.  They were not meant to be morally uplifting; not meant to lead mourners into meditative states.  They simply marked the grave of a loved one who had passed on, and their crafting by friends or loved ones was meant to prove that this person was a valued and loved part of their community. 

More Midland Photo Galleries:

The Civil War Burials at Midland
African American Burial Traditions at Midland
World War Burials at Midland
Gallery of Home Crafted Tombstones
Artifacts of a Historic Cemetery

Names of Persons Buried at Midland:

Tombstone Transcriptions
All Names, A-Z

Other Pages:

Steelton Death Certificates, 1892-1893
About the Friends of Midland

Special Feature ~ The People of Midland:
Clayton E. Carelock

1.  The quote from Suggestions to Lot Holders was printed in the article "Harrisburg Cemetery:  Preserving Pennsylvania's History for 141 Tumultuous Years," in American Cemetery magazine, February, 1986, page 15.

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This page was updated March 25, 2005.