Polktown's sleeping past awakens: the African Union Church Cemetery at Delaware City.
--Inscription on an unidentifiable grave marker at Polktown
On a summer day some 20 years ago, a group of Delaware City children playing near the Chesapeake and Delaware Branch Canal stumbled onto some odd-looking rocks. Dragging one of the stones up to the manager of their mobile home community, the kids deposited it on the steps of the office. Manager John Wharton brushed away the mud, barely making out the etched letters "U.S.C.T." Wharton immediately called upon local resident and archaeologist Dave Orr, and his comments sent a rush of adrenaline through both of them.
This was a cemetery--and the men buried there were United States Colored Troops (UCST). Thus began the quest to bring alive a forgotten tract of history--the Polktown cemetery, one of the earliest free black communities in Delaware. Situated on the outskirts of town, those put to rest there were segregated in death as they were in life.
Home to Fort Delaware, former Civil War fortress-turned-prison, Delaware City boasted historic architecture and an eclectic mix of longtime residents and newcomers drawn specifically for the history. Originally founded as Newbold's Landing in 1801, it sat at the eastern terminus of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, opening for business in 1829.
Orr, who happened to be a National Park Service archaeologist and college professor, moved to the community in 1973. He described it as a "historical treasure chest," and he was drawn to the little community by the folklore, foodways, and architecture. While history is quick to remember the prosperous and famous, Orr's passion was for telling the story of those whom history tends to forget. He was determined to give these men a name--to tell their story.
News of the cemetery's rediscovery quickly spread. Local resident Bob Beck always knew about the cemetery, but the passing of time rendered it as a fading memory for many. He recalled walking on the adjacent towpath as a child in the 1930s, spying casket parts jutting out of the eroding canal bank. Bob published a couple of articles on the site in a local paper, which set off a wave of interest and publicity.
Enter Willis Phelps, retired Delaware National Guard soldier, product of a segregated Army himself, and engaging storyteller. Orr was introduced to Phelps, a park interpreter at Fort Delaware. These men from two very different backgrounds were about to embark on a quest to bring the cemetery alive again through the stories of those at rest below. Says Phelps, "Living history gives it life--authenticity--when people experience it. The story of these men is not just some fairy tale."
A longtime friendship and partnership developed between the two--one the consummate researcher and archeologist, the other a talented living historian on a mission. Phelps had been passionate about telling stories of his African-American heritage "to anyone who would listen" for more than 60 years. As Phelps stood on the ground above the resting place of the soldiers, he said, "It just rose up in me--somehow we are spiritually connected."
A deed search proved that the cemetery was the property of the Mt. Salem United African Methodist Episcopal Church, now located a few blocks from the site. Though it was church property for nearly 170 years, changing demographics rendered the cemetery a passing memory buried amidst the towering marsh grass. Said church member Linda Price, "Everyone knew it was there," but the tiny congregation needed help to preserve it. The cemetery was founded in 1835, with land purchased for $80 by the African Union Church Trustees. At the time, Delaware City's African-American population was a mix of both slaves and free blacks.
Overshadowing the desire to tell the story of those buried within was the urgency of preservation. Over a decade, members of the church and town community rallied to create a friends group with both goals in mind. While Orr conducted cradle-to-grave research on the soldiers, Phelps sought every opportunity to portray Private James Elbert, one of the soldiers buried at the cemetery, to audiences everywhere. Others in the group organized, mobilized, and sought funds. Pieces slowly began to fall into place as money trickled in. The group organized and became incorporated as a nonprofit organization. A partnership agreement was created with the church. Annual cleanup projects, archaeological grid mapping, and a geophysical survey were key steps. Some of the $13,000 initially raised helped hire stone conservator John Carr, who treated and remounted the headstones.
A group of inmates was recruited for one cleanup project, and one prisoner discovered a fifth USCT stone, that of Private Lewis Taylor. During the work, Phelps slowly strolled out of the marsh grass, replete in Civil War uniform, grasping a musket, and startled the men. "I'm just going home," he told the men, pointing to Elbert's grave. Phelps launched into his tale of adventure, keeping the inmates spellbound as he discussed battle exploits in Florida and Virginia. The interpretive side of the equation had begun.
Work continued on the site piecemeal, when funding and help were available. The work of the conservator turned up not only five soldiers' graves, but also the graves of six civilians. Nonnative fieldstones were also discovered--possibly marking additional graves. Add to that the possibility that many graves may have borne wooden markers long since decomposed, and it was clear that there were far more graves than the surface revealed.
But despite the partnership and nonprofit status, donations were sparse. The continuous war with the wetlands took its annual toll. Volunteer groups would come for a cleanup project, but a season later the marsh grass once again dominated. It became evident that to achieve long-term preservation, a master plan and additional funding were necessary.
In the meantime, Orr continued to research the soldiers and Phelps continued to bring them to life. James H. Elbert of Company C, 8th Infantry, USCT, was listed in the census as a "day laborer" who served at Hilton Head and saw action at Olustee and Petersburg. Injured at the Battle of Darbytown Road in October of 1864, Elbert was taken to the hospital at City Point, Virginia. Given a 20-day furlough in January of the next year, he went home. But Elbert was charged with desertion, a charge he would later successfully contest. Unable to read and write according to census records, it's possible he did not understand a furlough was not the same as a discharge. With Phelps portraying Elbert, the two took their story on the road--to Orr's college classes, community events, schools, corporate presentations, and conferences in Petersburg and at Tuskegee. Orr was the purveyor of information, and Phelps was the personality who brought it all to life.
According to Linda Beck, Bob's wife and a key player in the group, the project crept along over a period of 20 years "not for a lack of vision, but more so a lack of money." In the last couple years, a master plan, 3-D rendering, and in-kind contributions advanced progress, providing essential tools needed for fundraising. But as luck would have it, another project turbocharged the group's vision.
The C&D Canal Trail, a 16-mile multi-use recreational trail backed by the federal government and various citizens groups, broke ground in summer 2012. The trail would provide recreational amenities for walking, biking, and horseback. As luck would have it, the trail's eastern end hugged the cemetery, and construction of a protective berm would also provide the cemetery a physical wall of protection. Further, the trail would bring additional funding and serve as a magnet for tourists and fitness enthusiasts. It would bring an influx of visitors and enable the story of those buried beneath the marsh mud to be told to many. Security, landscaping, hardscaping with brick paths and benches, regular maintenance, and interpretive signage were all part of the plan.
Bob Beck and John Wharton, whom Orr describes as "the hero in all this," have passed away since the project's beginnings; Linda Beck continues to be a motivated leader in continued progress, helping to ignite a diverse committee. And Phelps continues to go on the road as Private Elbert.
While Phelps and Orr have reason to be pleased at the progress of the project, they both are quick to identify the biggest missing piece of the puzzle. With the church congregation changing radically over 170 years, despite efforts, no connection has been made as of this writing between the people buried at Polktown and the living community. Says Orr, "Connecting the living community--creating a descendant community--is essential. We need people who can proudly say, 'Those are my ancestors.'"
Laura Lee is the interpretive program manager and park historian at Fort Delaware State Park in Delaware City, Delaware. A town resident who moved to this "20th-century Mayberry" in 2008, she is a Certified Interpretive Guide currently completing her requirements for Certified Interpretive Trainer. She serves on the board of the cemetery friends group as well as the town's Historic Preservation Commission.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2012|
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