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It’s time to repair our past

What started as a simple conversation in the offices of the chamber of commerce and the visitors bureau about beautifying a patch of ground has turned into an amazing community project revolving around the locally known AME Cemetery.

Rhonda Kelley and Jenny Landis called together a diverse group of people who they thought would take on this three-phase project. Along with physical improvements to the gravestones and property, an expanded history was also on the agenda.

That’s where I came in. As a history major in college, I’ve used the skills I have learned to research my local roots here for many, many years and was ready to use my training to uncover the stories that lie in this small cemetery.

For starters, the property is commonly called the “colored” cemetery, the Black cemetery, or the AME Church Cemetery. We have found that this land was likely never owned solely by the AME Church and that members of it as well as a now defunct Zion Church were laid to rest side by side. Additionally, there is at least one grave that predates the church burials. This was a community graveyard and the committee agreed that the name should reflect that. Since a new archway with the cemetery’s name on it is on the property improvements list, this is an important fact to sort out. My hope is that by giving stories to the names buried here, we can help our community understand what an incredible piece of history we all drive by daily.

The tombstone restoration workshop held on Oct. 2 and 3 unearthed new stories and discovered a tombstone that was not in any previous records! Mrs. Kesiah Rauch was buried on the property in 1816 — a full 19 years before the space is found listed in records as an official cemetery. That discovery raised many more questions, possibilities, and started a deed search. I am particularly frustrated with the county employee who in 1915, failed to list the deed book reference in the record.

So for now, the search continues to find the chain of ownership of the plot, which we feel would tell us much about the intentions of the property. I would encourage anyone doing ancestry research to not limit themselves to online records — check out your local historical society records or get out and get dirty in a local cemetery! You can tell much about relationships by the location of stones.

Sadly, I have seen some old cemeteries where stones have been moved for the convenience of the mower — history is lost in these cases and never able to be recovered. It is the goal of the committee to preserve the local history so that those who come after us will be able to learn much about our community from the stories it holds.

If you would like to be a part of this exciting project or donate to the cause, please contact the Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce or the Juniata River Valley Visitors Bureau at (717) 248-6713, info@juniatarivervalley.org, or stop in the Historic Courthouse during office hours. They are as excited about this project as I am.

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Allison Fisher is a member of the cemetery project and director of Mifflin Juniata Human Services. Her search for her roots has led her to cemeteries as close as Granville and as far away as Cape Cod. She and her family volunteer their time to place flags on veterans’ graves on Memorial Day all over Mifflin County.

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