A team of Dickinson College students could visit Mount Holly Springs this April to conduct a field survey of burial grounds tied to the Mount Tabor AME Church on Cedar Street.
Three to five students enrolled in the Environmental Geophysics course could take the lead on a project that may use ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint the locations of unmarked graves, said Jorden Hayes, an assistant professor of earth science at the college.
A volunteer effort is underway to preserve the long-abandoned church that had served as the spiritual hub of a black community that once thrived in a town that has already lost a lot of its history.
“We are absolutely happy to contribute where we can,” Hayes said about a survey that will be offered at no cost to Mount Holly Springs.
“This is a real opportunity for our students to be engaged in the community and to have that cultural relevance,” she added. “It’s important to understand our past to look towards our present and future.”
The student-led survey would analyze subsurface conditions at two locations: the main African-American cemetery just down the street from the church and a suspected cemetery on private property behind the church building.
The church and its main cemetery have been listed on the Cumberland County register of historic places, said Lindsay Varner, community outreach director for the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle.
A goal this year is to file an application with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to have a state marker put up in recognition of the significance of the church and its main cemetery, Varner said. “We want to start working towards a national historic designation for it.”
The more information the effort has, the greater the likelihood that the state and federal applications would be approved, Varner said. But there is also the chance the field survey could be inconclusive.
The first step in a field survey would be to gauge the extent of clay deposits in the subsurface soil of both burial grounds, Hayes said. “If there is too much clay, it could be a challenge to get anything reliable.”
Ground-penetrating radar works by emitting radio waves into the soil, Hayes said. Clay deposits act as a barrier for these waves to penetrate and provide an accurate read on the subsurface conditions.
“We are not going to see individual bones,” Hayes said. Instead the waves may detect the absence of natural soil layers beneath the surface that could indicate the ground had been disturbed by the burial of a body.
The students will also be looking for slight depressions at the surface that could indicate void spaces in the subsurface caused by the natural settling that takes place once the coffin and its contents have deteriorated and rotted away.
“If we can tie evidence from a subsurface scan with surface observation, then we can start to paint a picture,” Hayes said. The students could chart the locations of the disturbances to determine if there is a pattern.
The main cemetery is larger than it looks, Varner said. That burial ground includes a small family plot along with a number of military-style headstones for African-American men who served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.
“Beyond that we really don’t have an idea of how many people are buried there,” Varner said. “We are missing headstones and we don’t have a burial plot map.” Research on obituaries turned up some prospects on who could be buried there.
There is reason to believe a second cemetery exists behind the church on land that is overgrown with brambles. That cemetery predates the church, which was built in the 1870s.
Local residents said that decades ago there were grave markers located behind the church. Those markers may have been taken for paving stones or lost within the brambles, Varner said. She added the private landowner has given permission for the students to conduct a ground-penetrating radar scan to verify whether the land is a cemetery.
“If we do manage to find out where those burials are, it gives us an opportunity to do something like what we did in the main cemetery,” Varner said. “Mark the boundaries of where those burials are and try not to get the land overgrown again.
“You don’t always get the answer you are looking for,” Varner said. “But we figured it is worth trying and is worth seeing if we can find evidence.”