The 1860s was a decade that marked a distinct change in the United States. The Civil War ended with a Union victory, slavery was abolished, reconstruction of the South was underway, and Ulysses S. Grant was elected as president. Changes were also taking place in Harrisonburg during this time such as the need to give freed slaves a proper burial ground. In 1869, the Newtown Cemetery was formed and was dedicated to the burial of freed slaves. The cemetery is still in operation and celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of The Newtown Cemetery, which was the first designated place for freed slaves to be buried in Harrisonburg and spreads across four acres of land. The cemetery represents the history of African-American slaves in Harrisonburg and their families who still reside in the area. Due to its age, the cemetery has developed an erosion problem that has greatly affected the area and requires more efforts to maintain the land.
According to Monica Robinson, the president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP and resident of Harrisonburg for over 30 years, the Newtown Cemetery is important because it has “redefined what ‘community’ means” and “preserves the history” of the African-American community in Harrisonburg.
“The Newtown Cemetery is amazing,” Robinson said. “It was a place where freed slaves could be buried. A few guys got together, bought the land and buried these individuals respectfully.”
According to Robinson, many African-Americans were buried, unnamed, around Harrisonburg before the Cemetery was made.
The cemetery is maintained by the North East Neighborhood Association which has been in operation for 13 years. Karen Thomas, the founder and president of NENA and a trustee of the Newtown Cemetery, explained that the association has had success in maintaining the land through a grant from the Rotary Club of Harrisonburg, gravestones for the named and unnamed and the historic plaques on the Sterling 919 St. columns. Also, NENA has been successful in having the cemetery placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register (2014) and the National Register of Historic Places (2015).
“NENA is the primary fundraising agent for the cemetery and was successful in getting the city council to pave the driveways in the cemetery,” Thomas said. “The Newtown Cemetery is essential to the history of Harrisonburg's African-American community, known then as Newtown, and now as the Northeast Neighborhood. It was originally was formed for ‘people of color,’ but today there’s a mix of races buried there.”
NENA also partnered with Josie Rao, a senior at Broadway High School, to plant trees in order to help alleviate the erosion problem at the cemetery. Rao organized this service as part of a research project for the Massanutten Regional Governor's School with the goal of helping her community. Rao explained that it’s her duty to “respect the people that came before us.” She took it upon herself to contact NENA and organize a community service event.
“The ground at the cemetery has been disturbed for many years,” Rao said. “Foot traffic and runoffs from rainwater have cause eroding at the Cemetery. Water collects in the slopes and causes a lot of damages to the land. The trees that we planted will help absorb the water and help stop the eroding problem.”
The Newtown Cemetery has preserved the history of the African-American community here in Harrisonburg for 150 years. It serves as a place where families of the North East Neighborhood can remember the history of past relatives and will continue to be a place that honors the freed slaves of Harrisonburg’s past.
“Since the Newtown Cemetery has been in operation, more African-Americans in Harrisonburg have been involved in local government, police, and diversity,” Robinson said.
Contact Jessica Klonaris at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.