The National Park Service has named Shippensburg’s Locust Grove Cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historic site reflecting two centuries of African American history and culture in Central Pennsylvania.
“It is a blessing to receive this honor,” said Nancy Hodge, a member of the Locust Grove Cemetery Committee. “Many people have cared for the cemetery through the years, and we are grateful to everyone who has supported the cemetery and helped us to honor those buried there, especially our military veterans.”
The cemetery, located on North Queen Street in Shippensburg Borough, began its history as a slave burial ground in the late 18th century, and then continued serving the community’s growing free-Black population. Sometime before 1834, the local African American community established the community’s first Black church adjacent to the burial ground. The Richard Baker A.M.E. Church operated on the site until the early twentieth century.
In the decades before and after the Civil War, Shippensburg’s African American community expanded rapidly as the community attracted both free Black families and recently freed slaves from the South. The cemetery’s grounds and markers provide a connection to the people who made their homes in Shippensburg, as well as the institutions they built to serve the area’s African American residents.
The Locust Grove Cemetery includes the graves of 26 African American Civil War veterans, including John and James Shirk who served with the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, as well as military veterans representing American conflicts from the Spanish American War through Vietnam. For over one hundred years, a Memorial Day commemoration program has been held to honor those veterans.
The Locust Grove Cemetery was first determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 based on research conducted by Shippensburg University history professor Dr. Steven Burg and his students. In 2019, Burg and students in the Applied History graduate program prepared a formal nomination and supporting documentation to have the site listed on the National Register. This was part of a larger collaboration including the Locust Grove Cemetery Committee, Shippensburg University, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, and the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds–a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Pennsylvania’s African American cemeteries.
David Maher, the National Register Reviewer at the State Historic Preservation Office at the time, helped to shepherd the application through the complex nomination process. He was familiar with the Locust Grove Cemetery because as an undergraduate at Shippensburg University he had spent most of the summer of 2006 at the cemetery with Burg researching its history and helping to repair and reset damaged tombstones.
Burg remarked on the listing, “This has been a labor of love, working with my students and colleagues across the state and with the Locust Grove Cemetery Committee members to uncover this history and to help preserve this important place. The Locust Grove Cemetery is one of the oldest African American cemeteries in Pennsylvania, and it is an amazing place to connect with over two centuries of Pennsylvania’s African American history. It took a lot of time and effort to get to this point, but hopefully our efforts will help to protect and preserve this site for future generations.”
The Locust Grove Cemetery Committee is planning a formal dedication ceremony in connection with its Memorial Day Program on May 30, 2022 at the Locust Grove Cemetery on North Queen Street.