For nearly two decades, Yolanda Romero has kept a promise she made to her dying father: to keep up a historic cemetery in Lawnside that became the final resting place for black Civil War veterans, former slaves, and those who could not be buried in white-only cemeteries.
Years of neglect have taken a toll on Mount Peace Cemetery, one of several sites in the historically African American Camden County community that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ground around some graves is sinking, headstones are toppled, inscriptions on some markers are no longer legible, and the cemetery is covered with leaves, branches, and other debris.
Romero and a small band of volunteers have been trying for years to keep up efforts started by her father and others to spruce up the cemetery, which stretches over more than 11 acres on the White Horse Pike. They have made progress, but lack the funds and manpower to restore dignity to the sacred place.
"There's a lot of history here," said Romero, 66, a retired human resources manager, who serves on the board of the Mount Peace Cemetery Association.
Mount Peace was established in 1900 as a private, nonsectarian option for African Americans. More than 3,000 people are interred there. Among them are 77 Civil War veterans, including Medal of Honor recipient John H. Lawson.
During the Civil War, the veterans served in regiments on the East Coast, according to Romero. Their families sent their remains to Lawnside for burial because they were not permitted in white cemeteries, she said. Settled before the Civil War, the small borough was a haven for free blacks and runaway slaves.
It is believed that the remains of as many as 125 Civil War veterans are buried there, but their graves have not been located, Romero said. Burial records and plot maps were lost when a fire destroyed a caretaker's house on the property.Veterans of the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War also are buried in Mount Peace.
Dolly L. Marshall was surprised to learn last year that her maternal great-great grandfather, William Waters Hegamin, a seaman from Philadelphia, is buried in Mount Peace. He died in 1911. Records show that his wife, Loretta, was also interred there, but the grave has not been located, she said. Back then, spouses could not be buried next to veterans.
"I'm looking for her," said Marshall, fundraising director for the cemetery association.
During a tour Thursday, Romero pointed to a three-acre section in the back of the cemetery near I-295 where Boy Scout volunteers discovered more graves. The area is covered with growth and not easily accessible.
"We know that there's more back there," she said. "But we just don't have the money to clear it."
In some areas, graves without tombstones are surrounded by clusters of spiky yucca leaves, often used by African Americans to mark a burial spot, Romero said. Some family sections are surrounded by small stone markers in various shapes, but in many cases the family's name is unknown.
"These are places that don't get a lot of notoriety," said Courtenay D. Mercer, the group's director. "You're losing the history. That's what we're fighting for — so that somebody will decide that they love it enough to help save it."
Romero got involved in the cemetery project in 2000, after the death of her father, Lloyd, a founding board member, who recruited neighbors in the '70s to help clean up and place American flags on the veterans' graves. He installed paved cross roads in the cemetery, erected tool sheds, put together a primitive grave map, and compiled a list of the names of the Civil War soldiers, she said.
"It was my father's dying wish that I take over when he was gone. I couldn't see letting go all that he had done over the years," Romero said.
The Mount Peace association has $100,000 in its maintenance and preservation fund. But under state law, caretakers are only allowed to spend the interest, which has dropped to about $16 a year, Romero said. The former cemetery owners went bankrupt. So the trustees rely upon donations and cleanups by residents and members of local churches, civic groups, and fraternal organizations.
A small landscaping crew, using riding mowers and trimmers, were clearing grass and weeds in a front section of the cemetery Thursday, carefully avoiding sinkholes and toppled markers. Businessman David Zallie, who owns an area Shop Rite store, serves on the cemetery board and has been picking up the cost of lawn service since 2014.
About 50 volunteers are expected to fan out at the cemetery Saturday for a cleanup organized by a local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, said Wanda Griffin-Thrower, project coordinator. It is the second of three outings planned there by the chapter, which received a $500 grant from Camden County for the project, she said.
New burials are no longer accepted at Mount Peace. There are signs that visitors come periodically to pay their respects — plastic Christmas wreaths faded by the weather adorn a grave, while another is topped with a bouquet of red roses.
Cemetery board members eventually hope to put a fence around the cemetery to deter pedestrians who walk through, often dropping trash. They also want to clear the remaining acres and identify as many remains as possible and put upright fallen tombstones. They hope to attract more tourists to learn about the cemetery's history, she said.
"We have this historical location where there are people who died for our country. They were fighting for us to be free," Griffin-Thrower said. "How big a deal can you get?"
If you go: Mount Peace Cleanup: Saturday, 10 a.m. - 1 p.m., 329 White Horse Pike, Lawnside, NJ