April 23, 2013
by Meagan Ratini
A few weeks ago, a team from UMass Boston and the Fiske Center traveled southwest to Pennsylvania to survey another historically African-American cemetery. Whereas the recently-studied cemetery on Shelter Island was used for enslaved individuals, this cemetery was created at a later point in time, when free people as well as those who escaped from slavery were forming many of their own communities. Many such communities were centered around churches which explicitly served African-American congregations—as did the Mount Gilead AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church.
UMass Boston grad student Allison Conner (left) obtains GPS points while Dr. John Steinberg places flags to mark where the GPR survey would be conducted. Mt. Gilead AME Church is in the background.
Founded sometime in the 1830s, Mount Gilead sits on a wooded ridge in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. At the time of its founding, the church was located in an area surrounded by farms mostly owned by white Quakers. Little has been documented about this church’s history and its relationship with the surrounding areas, although the church leadership believes that there were once one hundred families who lived on the ridge line and comprised the community of the church.
The people buried in the church cemetery include freeborn African-Americans, individuals who escaped or were emancipated from slavery, as well as some people without African descent who have been part of the mountain community as it’s changed over the past century. Local legends and local histories tie this church even more strongly to the Underground Railroad (Blockson 1975:13), including to the figure of Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones, whose dramatic recapture by Southern slave hunters was recently fictionalized in an independent film.
UMass Boston graduate students Nadia Kline (left) and Allison Conner prepare the cemetery for the survey on an unseasonably cold morning.
In terms of the research for my master’s thesis, I am interested in seeing whether the cemetery was in use before the church actually owned the property, potentially suggesting the surreptitious use of this land by people of the Underground Railroad or suggesting types of aid which Quakers in this area may have provided to the people of the church.
In order to do this, we needed to map the locations of extant gravestones as well as use shallow geophysics to see whether all graves in the cemetery are marked. Thanks to a research grant from the Graduate Student Assembly at UMass Boston, I was able to bring several professors (Drs. John Steinberg and John Schoenfelder) as well as two of my fellow graduate students to the site to survey the whole area of the cemetery both above ground and by using ground-penetrating radar (GPR).
John Steinberg pulls the GPR antenna along the ground while Nadia Kline watches the read-out on its monitor.
GPR “sees” graves by sending and receiving pulses of electromagnetic energy into the soil and recording the reflections of that energy off of changes in the ground structure as well as reflections from buried objects. You can see an example from the Sylvester Manor project for an idea of what these read-outs look like or read a slightly more detailed description of the technology in another Fiske Center blog post. Unfortunately, GPR has no way to determine the actual age of anything it sees, but by studying the results in combination with archival documents, I’m hoping to be able to be able to answer these and other questions.
The results of this work are still forthcoming, but should help bring to light more about this church’s history, growth, and persistence in the area. It should also help with ongoing preservation efforts at the church and cemetery.
Blockson, Charles L.
1975 Pennsylvania’s Black History. Louise B. Stone, editor. Portfolio Associates, Philadelphia, PA.