Until I left for college, I had lived in one town in South Central Pennsylvania. I hadn’t even travelled, except to visit my parents’ hometowns. When you grow up in one place, one landscape, whatever you’ve experienced is your normal. When something occurs that doesn’t fit with your understanding of the place, it sticks out as an anomaly.
The first European settlers west of the Susquehanna River came in the early 1800s to farm the fertile limestone soils. They were German and Scotch-Irish. These were lands that had been part of the Susquehannock nation, something I was taught as a child. The last Susquehannocks, who themselves had become settled farmers and even adopted Christianity, were massacred in 1763 by the Paxtang Boys, something I was not taught in school and only learned years later. That is an important story that deserves its own telling in due course.
Soon, towns grew in the Cumberland Valley to support agriculture and transportation. During the 19th century, iron furnaces in the region and abundant lumber on the mountains created the raw materials for industrialization and the town was named for the mechanics who set up shop there. First by wagon, then canal boat, then locomotive, this landscape was strategic for settlers crossing the Alleghenies or moving down the Great Valley to Bluegrass country.
In June 1863, my hometown, Mechanicsburg, was the northernmost town captured by Confederate forces. After the Skirmish at Sporting Hill, the Virginia forces pulled back to regroup at Gettysburg, unaware of the fate that awaited them.
After the Civil War, industrialization took off. New people from coastal cities and European countries moved into the area. The population of the town grew decade by decade. By mid-century, suburbanization from Harrisburg, the state capital across the river, brought a new wave of professional workers to the area, including my family. Being born to this place, my own personal Plato’s cave, I accepted the woods, the fields, the town, and the people as normal and logical.
Even as a child I knew a fact about my hometown — it was white, that’s how it was said. What that meant was, but for a few exceptions, the citizens were White or identified as such. The few exceptions I knew were East Asian or South Asian. What we did not have were African American neighbors. As creepy as this would make me feel now, in the ‘70s it did not seem peculiar, or even a result of racism. For all I knew as a teenager it was just the nature of small town Pennsylvania.
But then there was that anomaly — that piece of evidence on a landscape that says your understanding of the place is not complete, or your narrative of how the landscape was created needs to be revisited. These anomalies can come in many forms but they are evidence you cannot deny.
Growing up, you learn about your world by thousands of experiences and thousands of local stories. School friends, whose families went back generations, knew of the Black cemetery outside of town, although I believe at the time we called it the Negro cemetery.
When we were old enough to explore, we went looking for it. We found it out Winding Hill Road. It was like no cemetery I had ever seen before. It sat in a thicket of overgrown woods, fifty yards off the road. From the pavement you would think it was just a copse grown up around a limestone outcrop in the field. A patch where seeds had blown in from hedgerows and grown into a raggedy clump of trees. Underneath, the edges were protected by ramparts of brambles and poison ivy.
Pushing through, we did find stones in the field, but these were not bedrock poking through. Headstones were scattered through the woody patch. Some had been heaved by frost, others flipped over by the root of a black locust. It was hard to tell how many there were, maybe 20, maybe 30. Despite the wild veil of nature, you could tell the graves had been carefully laid out in rows and marked with proper stones. Once this cemetery mattered to someone and was cared for. Although looking at its condition in the ‘70s, it had been many decades since anyone tended it.
I felt a powerful sense of place in this milieu, this tableau. Questions ran through my mind. How did this cemetery get here? I had grown up believing there had never been any African Americans citizens in town. (Although I knew even then if there had been, they would not have been buried in the town cemetery.) Who were these people? Where had they come from? What are their stories? These were people with whom I shared a landscape. I assumed they must have lived here for some time to be interred here. Why was this sacred place abandoned? Clearly the descendants were not nearby. Where did they go?
My bemusement combined with the spirit of the place to forge a memory that has always stuck with me. An anomaly does that — stands out and creates a lasting memory.
Forty years later I moved back to my hometown. With it comes the chance to revisit old haunts and see how the landscape has changed. I’m pleased to report the community is noticeably more diverse, and public life is considerably more cosmopolitan. Bagels and biryanis are easily found, things that were unheard of in my youth. There is sushi on Main Street. My new neighbors trace their backgrounds from all over the globe, some of them from hundreds of years ago and some within their own lifetimes.
I went in search of the hidden cemetery, wondering if time has continued to enshroud it so it is barely a memory. I know what road to travel, but how far? I hope a drive will trigger a recollection of some marker, some familiar form that helps me recognize the place. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. There are signs along the road saying “Lincoln Cemetery” leading the way. Why a cemetery of formerly enslaved people and their families is named after a white man, albeit one significant in the narrative, I am not sure.
A driveway leads back to the cemetery. No longer an overgrown thicket, it is a black walnut grove with a grassy floor. A flagpole sits at the entrance. A monument dedicated to the U.S. Colored Troops has been installed by the local Vietnam Veterans chapter. Brothers separated by a century. The dedication is well made. The U.S. Colored Troops served in the second half of the Civil War. They numbered 178,000, mostly emancipated enslaved men, but also free men of African descent, and other minorities that were not considered white.
The cemetery is now maintained by the Vietnam Veterans of Mechanicsburg. The overgrowth has been carefully removed. The ground is uneven, as it often is in old cemeteries. Headstones planted in neat rows lean slightly this way and that, a right that comes with age. There are 88 marked gravesites. Any unmarked graves are silent sagas. The last burial took place in 1955, although most of the deaths that are memorialized came in the 50 years after the Civil War. A dozen gravesites are marked for veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.
I wonder about the stories of the people buried here and their connection to this landscape. I see the grave of William Pope who died in 1902 at the age of 72. He lies in a black walnut grove surrounded by a 19th century farm. A 21st century power line slices through the farm. In the long view, the silhouette of South Mountain shapes the horizon. Where was Private Pope of Company B, 32nd Regiment born? Where did he live? Were his liberty and the fruits of his labor entitled to another person for the first 30 years of his life? Where did he serve fighting for the United States of America? And especially, when did he come to this landscape? Was the rolling farmland to his liking? Did he like the coolness of spring nights in this valley? Were the townsfolk welcoming or hostile, or something else altogether? Do his descendants visit him here?
This cemetery is a part of the landscape. History and culture put it there. An anomaly is something that deviates from the expected or normal. The landscape does not make this cemetery an anomaly. The processes that put the town where it is, the railroad where it is, and the farms where they are also put this cemetery here. Cultural, ecological, and physical processes create landscapes. Everything exists for a reason. Anomalies are not a part of a physical landscape, rather they are a part of our perception of a landscape. Perceived anomalies in a landscape challenge us to deepen our knowledge of its history and to broaden our scope of the forces that shape and reshape the land. This cemetery is part of a bigger story.