Can post-Civil War black history of sleepy borough be saved?
MOUNT HOLLY SPRINGS, Pa. (AP) — As a girl, she couldn’t wait to get away.
As a 69-year-old woman, Carmen (Redmond) James wishes she would have asked many more questions about her modest neighborhood, which just happens to be a nearly-forgotten jewel in Pennsylvania’s African-American history.
The nexus of this post-Civil War African-American community in the heart of Cumberland County was the Mount Tabor AME Zion Church, now a dilapidated log structure off Cedar Street in Mount Holly Springs.
At its height, it was the spiritual and community center of several hundred African-Americans who had settled along Mountain Street after the Civil War. They came for jobs in Mount Holly Springs’ paper mills.
The log-structured church was erected on its stone foundation in 1870. It remained active for the next hundred years, as generations were baptized, married and buried here.
Of the estimated 60 African Americans resting in the nearby cemetery once called “colored,” there are seven United Stated Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War. At least two of them were liberated slaves, Cumberland County historians say.
“For our little town, to have seven U.S.C.T. troops in a cemetery, to me, is like a sacred thing,” James said.
But moving here in 1951 and spending her childhood here until 1969, James said it was just home -- and a confining one at that.
“We were growing up, and we could hardly wait to get away,” she said. “It’s like anybody. You want to be able to go and move to the big city and make more money.”
But in 2003, James returned.
In recent years, she has joined forces with the Cumberland County Historical Society and the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul Project to recover, document and memorialize the African-American history here.
The church sat untouched until 2016, when volunteers from the Heart & Soul project learned of its history by recording the oral stories of community members.
The oral histories included those of the surviving members of the Gumby family, one of four African-American families that can trace their roots to the founding of the church and community here.
Harriet Gumby, 87, still lives in the family home off Mountain Street. Her history is among those recorded by the project.
Her grandfather was a Civil War veteran, former enslaved person, and her family story says he built the church for the growing African-American community here in 1870.
The church lasted until 1970. But as the African-American community here dwindled, with families moving away after the paper mills shuttered, the house of worship was eventually shuttered, too.
Its front door was literally nailed shut, and the structure itself became overgrown with trees and vegetation.
But what was inside was perfectly preserved.
“At the height of summer, you couldn’t even see it,” Lindsay Varner, Community Outreach Director with the Cumberland County Historical Society, said of the church.
“But it was like a time capsule. Everything was still inside,” she added. “There were pews. There were hymnals. Fans from the last funeral they had. Everything was still sitting there. It was like they had their last service, they shut the door, and no one ever came back.”
That was until Varner and former Mount Holly Springs borough councilwoman Pamela Still heard the Gumbys’ story and received the family’s permission to enter the church.
Still crawled in through a church window in 2016, discovering a century’s worth of African-American culture.
Since then, the effort to recover, record and memorialize as much of the history here has been running in high gear.
On Saturday, volunteers, family members, neighbors and officials were excavating a site adjacent to the church, looking to recover artifacts that would further contextualize the community history here.
In an overgrown wooded area to the rear, a medium was rubbing two sticks and walking paces in a supernatural effort to divine the location of unmarked African-American graves in a lost cemetery separate from the one that has been fenced-in and preserved.
James said she witnessed the funeral for one of the last people buried in the lost cemetery. It was for a neighbor lady she and everyone else referred to as “Aunt Betty.”
In her mind’s eye, James said she can see the funeral procession as if it were yesterday. Aunt Betty was the first person she ever knew who died. And James watched from her bedroom window as the Sunday-best-clad mourners snaked up the hill toward the burial plot, carrying Aunt Betty’s coffin.
It’s just one of many indelible scenes from a childhood James now treasures as both idyllic -- and historic.
She was never allowed comic books. There was no listening to soap operas on the radio. And on Sundays, families went to church, then sat on their front porches the rest of the day.
But on any day other than the Sabbath, the kids could play all day in the fields behind the church.
There was a time this tiny section of the equally-small Mount Holly Springs was her whole world, one James couldn’t wait to escape.
Now, she wishes she’d spent more time talking to her elders, learning her neighborhood’s rich past.
Older and wiser now, James knows this is much more than home.
“We could have lost this history entirely,” Varner said.
There’s no danger of that now.
The archaeological-like excavation going on now will catalog artifacts and hopefully locate those unmarked graves in the lost, overgrown cemetery.
And on the site of the church, there will be a lasting memorial, still to be finalized, to commemorate and honor the African-Americans who made a home and built a community here in the aftermath of the Civil War.
“Our No. 1 goal when we started was to at least save the history and memory of the church,” Varner said. “Something will be here to memorialize the site.”
Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com