Barbara Barksdale: Creating Respect Through Ownership

In most places she goes, Barbara Barksdale will introduce herself as “The Cemetery Lady.” She has lived in Steelton, PA all her life, having pursued a career in nursing and later teaching at the Academy of Medical Arts and Business in Harrisburg. Her search for her grandfather’s gravestone at Midland Cemetery with her then-young son over thirty years ago spiraled into her spearheading a large group of volunteers and professionals in her quest to preserve historic African American cemeteries, especially those where U.S. Colored troops are interred across Pennsylvania.

Not only a local celebrity, Barbara gained national and international notoriety for her tireless work over the last 30 years working to preserve, educate about, and honor Midland Cemetery and later the PA Hallowed Ground Project. Her work at Midland Cemetery has been featured in seven books, including one written in Bulgarian, and documentaries such as PBS; Slavery, and the Making of America

Changes Over Time
Barbara’s passion for preserving the memory of her ancestors at the Midland Cemetery, located on the outskirts of Harrisburg, PA, sparked her to become a renowned leader in the historic preservation of cemeteries where Black Americans became interred across Pennsylvania. The Midland Cemetery is the resting place of over 1,200 African American men, women, and children spanning almost two centuries including slaves, former slaves, Civil War U.S Colored Troops, Buffalo Soldiers, veterans of the Korean War, and soldiers serving in WWI and WWII.

Created in 1795 as a segregated cemetery for the “colored” working on the farm, Midland Cemetery was at first part of what became called the Kelker Farm in 1800. This initial cemetery is now called “Ancestor’s Grove” and is a small part of the now 3 & 1 ⁄ 2 acres which officially became designated the Midland Cemetery in 1877. Many people of color in Dauphin County went on to be interred there. The last burial occurred in 1986, around the time that the prior owner, The Midland Cemetery Association (created in 1934) ceased to exist.

Ancestors’ Grove memorial sign at the Midland Cemetery

The cemetery, already experiencing the effects of overgrowth and neglect, fell into disrepair until the early 1990s when Barbara and her young son first visited. By that time, Midland Cemetery was heavily wooded with overgrowth and many gravestones had shifted, were broken, or buried. Barbara founded the Friends of Midland in 1993 and has been ensuring its restoration and continued preservation since then. From an early stage, The Pennsylvania Conservation Corps as well as Boy Scouts were immensely helpful in assisting the Friends of Midland Cemetery in rehabilitating the grounds.

Preservation through Public Awareness
It was not long after starting her initiative to preserve Midland Cemetery that Barbara successfully thwarted a plan by the township to clear the cemetery, condemned at the time, to build housing. Even under threat of arrest for trespassing on the condemned land, Barbara stood her ground. By going public on Kid’s Commissioner Day in Swatara township, she garnered support from the community on the previously shadowed topic and she has cultivated a positive collaboration with local government ever since.

Aerial View of The Midland Cemetery, not including Ancestors’ Grove which is to the top left

Now, thirty years later, many of the trees at Midland Cemetery have been cleared and extensive preservation work has occurred with the gravestones. Still, new problems have arisen, such as soil degradation of plots and weather damage to the gravestones that were once protected by overgrowth of trees and vegetation and are now exposed to the environment. With every storm or other climatic event, volunteers and the community come together to remedy damage and continue to preserve this historic site.

A wooden fence has been built around the sides of the cemetery to protect the site from the traffic that runs along Kelker Street and a side street parallel to Dunkle Street, which follows the length of the cemetery. Barbara does not choose to see setbacks such as those caused by weather or human interference because she believes there is always an opportunity to move forward.

Fence looking toward Ancestors’ Grove across from Kelker Street

Ownership through Commitment and Exposure
When asked how she creates respect for historic cemeteries like Midland, Barbara stated that it is all about creating a sense of ownership by the community, especially youth. Barbara works closely with local churches and the Steelton-Highspire schools just over the hill from Midland Cemetery. She has collaborated with educators to integrate programming about the Midland cemetery into the class curriculums oh history, math, science, English, and art.

Barbara shows the students and community members that as part of the community, no matter their color or creed, they are owners of the cemetery, cultivating community members, young and old, to be invested personally in the Midland Cemetery.

As for legal ownership, a Dauphin County judge granted The Friends of Midland Cemetery ownership in August of 2020 through squatter’s rights, with Barbara at the helm of their fight. With ownership of the land, the Friends of Midland has been able to secure government and public funding not previously available to them as well as securing a place for the Midland Cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.

Spreading the Roots of Preservation Work
Barbara became involved with the PA Hallowed Ground Project in 2010-2011, mostly due to her concern for U.S. Colored troops interred in small, abandoned cemeteries across Pennsylvania. A primary objective of the Project is documenting information about these historic sites and their occupants.

The PA Hallowed Ground Project provides the tools to preserve historic colored cemeteries as well as to educate the communities of Pennsylvania about the rich history and untold stories. The PA Hallowed Ground Project now assists individuals and small organizations in acquiring grants for preservation work and long-term planning that integrates funding, care of grounds, and use of consultants.

Barbara’s work with historic cemeteries has created a template for other states striving for the preservation of their historic sites and has spanned into the preservation and restoration of historic churches often tied to the cemeteries directly or through communities. One such church Barbara desires to save is the Monumental AME Church in Steelton.

The Big Picture for PA Conservationists
Historic preservation of sites such as the Midland Cemetery goes hand in hand with Pennsylvania’s conservation of land resources and the state’s rich cultural past tied to land utilization. Barbara’s work has been a template for national and international initiatives in historic cemetery preservation. She is a proponent of thorough and detailed documentation of such sites as to not be lost through human intervention or environmental factors, the legacy of the land is preserved. Not only should we value our natural resources and the land they lay on for what they are now, but their historical value too!

Cemetery maintenance efforts at Midland in August 2021

Resources on Barbara Barksdale, Midland Cemetery, and PA Hallowed Grounds Project:

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Written by Martha Moon, PPFF Conservation Heritage Project Intern