They may have been young, but Carlisle residents who lived near what is now Memorial Park remember the backhoes pulling out headstones from what was then Lincoln Cemetery.
But neither they nor the borough that removed them know where the headstones went after that.
There was some talk that they had been taken to the train station at the other end of the park, and possibly on to Union Cemetery on Franklin Street, but no one knows for certain.
The history of Lincoln Cemetery and its transition into a park is full of questions.
Now, the community is looking for the answers, and the borough said it is committed to helping with work that at least one council member said should have started sooner.
“The borough is fully committed to this research and trying to restore the honor that the cemetery and those buried there deserves,” Councilwoman Brenda Landis said Tuesday night during a town hall. “The borough can’t change history, but we can apologize for the choices that others made that have hurt our community. Please know that we would never make these choices now.”
The public phase of the search for answers launched Tuesday night with a town hall meeting in the community room at 1 West Penn. It was the culmination of several months of groundwork laid by a working group consisting of representatives of borough government, the U.S. Army War College, the Cumberland County Historical Society and the descendants of those whose remains are still believed to be under the rolling landscape at the eastern end of the park.
Different lines of inquiry about Lincoln Cemetery started to come together last fall.
That’s when U.S. Army War College Class of 2019 came to the borough council with an idea to offer a gift to the community, and were directed to Lincoln Cemetery by the Historical Society.
The borough council accepted the offer in October, directing parks and recreation director Andrea Crouse to form a working group to discuss the project and select an appropriate memorial.
A month earlier, a Dickinson College student approached TaWanda Hunter Stallworth about participating in a documentary about the loss of Lincoln Cemetery. Stallworth is the great-granddaughter of Fleta Jordan who fought for a court order to keep her family’s headstone at the cemetery when the others were removed.
The resulting seven-minute video talks about what is known about the cemetery and asks what happened to the cemetery and, specifically, what happened to the headstones.
Landis, the borough council representative to the working group, said the questions posed in the video can’t be answered yet despite the research being done by both the borough and the Historical Society.
“That’s not trying to hide anything. It’s true. This is going to take some time,” she said.
When the project was coming together, there were a number of thoughts on how the War College class could make the best use of its gift. After much deliberation and discussion, the committee came up with the arch concept as a way to start the work that needs to be done with the space, Stallworth said.
The arch will be installed in the entryway to the cemetery near the basketball courts to guide visitors into the cemetery and help them understand they are entering hallowed ground.
The arch is expected to be installed in mid-May. On Memorial Day, the archway will be presented in a recommitment ceremony that will thank the War College class, remember those buried at the cemetery and “offer an opportunity to pass the baton to the borough,” Landis said.
Lt. Col. LaFran Marks, a War College representative to the working group, said the 2019 class was “truly honored and blessed to be part of this initiative,” adding that it is moving to look at the milestones and hurdles that have already been overcome and to work through the challenges of the project.
“It’s amazing because a lot of communities don’t confront this part of their history,” he said. “It is our privilege to work with such a fine community and be part of such a noble effort going forward.”
Plans for the cemetery call for the removal of entry points from North Pitt and West Penn streets to prevent people from using the cemetery as a shortcut to the park. Gates will be installed to allow for maintenance.
The borough is also looking into potentially changing the zoning to take it from open space back to zoning that retains it as a cemetery. That plan, however, is complicated because Memorial Park was built using grant funding from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Susan Armstrong, assistant borough manager.
Borough Manager Matt Candland said there are options the borough could pursue to protect the land, such as covenants and restrictions that would limit its use to a cemetery or passive land area.
“There are a number of options that we have that would help protect future uses of the property,” he said.
The first phase of the project had to be done quickly because of the time frame set out by the War College’s class gift, Mayor Tim Scott said.
“Now that that’s done, we can have a larger community discussion about how we move forward. This is just the beginning,” he said.
The borough and the Historical Society are looking for stories from the people who have information that may not be part of the official record, Landis said. Anything the borough finds will be given to the Historical Society to be organized appropriately.
Landis said the committee has also been working with an earth science professor to do ground-penetrating radar scans to understand where burial plots might be.
“As the Historical Society has worked, they were noticing documents that are probably showing there are more people buried there than what the story has been told so far,” she said.
Originally, the society thought there were around 200 people buried there, but with additional research, that number has risen to closer to 500, Stallworth said.
Landis said the committee has not reached out yet to any specific groups, such as local churches, choosing instead to open the conversation to the public first.
In the meantime, people with stories, information or even old photos with the cemetery in the background should contact the Historical Society.
“I think a lot of times people think that one photo that they have isn’t relevant enough,” Landis said. “That one photo can help a lot, or that one little story.”