Volunteers clean Delco cemetery containing long-forgotten graves of Black veterans

Volunteers found the graves of more than 300 veterans at Green Lawn Cemetery.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Saturday, November 11, 2023
Volunteers clean cemetery of long-forgotten graves of Black veterans
Volunteers clean Delco cemetery containing long-forgotten graves of Black veterans

CHESTER TWP., Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- As our nation marks Veterans Day, some of the most hallowed grounds are cemeteries.

But not everyone who served has gotten the final peaceful resting place they deserve.

Proof can be found at Green Lawn Cemetery in Chester Township. It had fallen into a state of disrepair until one group of residents took action by cleaning it up. In the process, they discovered the long-forgotten graves of service members and residents.

Volunteers began focusing their efforts on Green Lawn Cemetery after Twyla Simpkins shared the story of the cemetery in a 2020 documentary.

"People were very angry, annoyed because of how the cemetery currently was in," she said.

The cemetery is significant to the community because it is the final resting place of many African-American service members and civilians.

Green Lawn was built in 1907 when Simpkins says African Americans were not allowed to be buried within the city limits of Chester.

"This is where a lot of our loved ones, particularly in the city of Chester, were buried," said State Representative Carol Kazeem of the 159th District.

She's one of the people who has volunteered to clean up the cemetery after it became unkempt and abandoned.

The cemetery was technically created as a corporation, which had a number of members. All those people have died, off according to Clarence Grasty, who is a volunteer steward of the cemetery.

"What happened is that all those people have passed away, but the Green Lawn Cemetery corporation remains on the record," he said.

Graves had become overgrown with brush and weeds.

"Most of the weeds was as tall as I was," said Simpkins.

Some of those weeds hid the headstones of heroes, soldiers who'd fought in the Civil War as well as Buffalo Soldiers, who were Black soldiers who helped settle the west.

"When we started finding headstones, that's when we found the Buffalo Soldier," said Simpkins.

"Many individuals that served in the Civil War, they were buried right here," said Kazeem, disappointed that their graves weren't being kept up.

"I think what's heartbreaking is to see that they're still not acknowledged," she said

It's why Friends of Green Lawn formed, to clean up the cemetery.

"I've adopted one side of the cemetery, and I maintain that part," said Grasty whose mother and infant daughter are buried in the cemetery.

Companies and organizations, such as Heroic Gardens, donated volunteer hours and equipment to clear some of the land. The rest of the land was cleared by hand with volunteers who discovered the long-forgotten graves of both civilians and soldiers.

"It's nothing like working here and somebody's hollering from the distance, 'I found it! I found it!'" Simpkins says of the discovery of a number of graves.

Volunteers have found the graves of more than 300 veterans.

"It's like a continuous labor of love," said Grasty.

The "goal" is not just to clean the cemetery but to own it. The organization, which is working to gain 501c3 status, is working to get the help of a lawyer in order to get the issue through court.

"It's a shame it has to be this way, but it's beautiful when you can see it all done," said volunteer Lynda Bruton.

In the meantime, the Friends of Green Lawn are committed to the mission.

"You just need an army, but we're forming an army," said Grasty.

They've cleared the majority of the cemetery and will work to finish the rest, ensuring all can truly rest in peace.

"It is our duty," said Kazeem.

Friends of Green Lawn will hold a Veterans Day ceremony on Saturday at 1 p.m.

It's open to the public. They're also still seeking volunteers to clean up the remaining portion of the cemetery, as well as people and organizations to adopt portions of the cemetery to make sure it never falls into disrepair again.

For more information, click: https://greenlawnchester.org/