Kevin Riordan: Stepping up to restore dignity to historic Lawnside cemetery

Clusters of spiky yucca leaves sprout among the tombstones at Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside, where maintenance problems seem as ubiquitous as the perennial graveyard plant.

"We try to keep it up, and we're going to keep it up," says trustee Mary Ann Wardlow, who also is mayor of the historically African American borough.

A public meeting to organize efforts to collect debris, trim vegetation, and otherwise spruce up the landmark cemetery on the White Horse Pike is set for 7 o'clock Tuesday night at Borough Hall.

Established more than a century ago as a private, nonsectarian option for African Americans excluded from burying their dead in white-owned cemeteries, Mount Peace meanders over nearly 12 woodsy, gently sloping acres between Mouldy Road and I-295.

It is the final resting place of more than 3,000 men, women, and children. Among them are 77 Civil War veterans, including Congressional Medal of Honor recipient John H. Lawson.

Mount Peace also has earned a place on state as well as national historic registries and is showcased in one of the podcasts Camden County recently produced through a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

The simple grave markers - you want elaborate tombs, go visit Camden's Harleigh Cemetery - lend Mount Peace a quiet dignity. "People didn't have money for headstones," says trustee Yolanda Romero.

Hence, the yucca, like the other succulents still in evidence around several graves, was a way African Americans would often mark a burial spot, she says.

The plants continue to grow despite the debris atop them and the dying trees around them. Trash blows in from nearby commercial areas, and the ground around any number of graves is sinking.

Meanwhile, annual income from the cemetery's maintenance and preservation fund, its only source of revenue, has dropped to about $1,000. New burials are not accepted. Lawn mowers are broken.

"We can pull together to fix . . . and maintain it," says Linda Shockley, president of Lawnside Historical Society Inc.

"Mount Peace should be a precious, sacred place, not only to Lawnsiders whose loved ones are buried there, but to descendants of countless others" whose remains were brought to the cemetery from all over the region, she says.

In the last 60 years, Mount Peace has weathered a succession of calamities, including the bankruptcy of its former owner and a fire that destroyed many burial records. By the 1970s, it was overgrown and an eyesore, periodically sparking cleanups by residents and members of local churches, civic groups, and fraternal organizations.

Eight years ago, then-trustee Bryson Armstead, a retired educator, led efforts to properly honor Lawson with a handsome marble tombstone.

Now 88, Armstead recently returned as a volunteer because he hates to see the place looking down at the heels.

He and trustee Romero, whose late father had been a stalwart board member, show me around. The churning noise of pike traffic recedes as we ascend the hillside, where many tombstones tilt and only a handful show signs of recent visitation.

"I stand on the shoulders of the people who are buried here. Some of them sacrificed their lives," Armstead says, standing near fluttering rows of American flags. "The least I can do is come here and clean off their graves."

"They laid the groundwork," says Romero, 60, a human resources manager, "for me to be who I am today. I feel I owe a certain amount of respect."

Says the historical society's Shockley: "The folks who set [up] this cemetery . . . had a vision and faith in generations they knew they'd never meet. Their legacies deserve more from us than we've been giving.

"It's well past time to step up."

Kevin Riordan:

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