Located in Lawnside, the only African-American incorporated municipality in New Jersey, Mount Peace Cemetery was founded in 1902 as a burial ground for African Americans. Many of those interred were excluded from whites-only cemeteries or burial grounds that were affiliated with specific houses of worship. Mount Peace became a resting place for freed blacks, enslaved individuals, at least 77 Civil War veterans including Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Lawson, as well as veterans of the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War.
By 1952, the original cemetery owner was bankrupt, and Mount Peace began to fall into disrepair. Soon after, a fire destroyed original records, including plot maps and burial records. Desperate for money in 1960, management sold an eight-acre parcel of the 18-acre site to a gas station. The cemetery deteriorated drastically during the next two decades, with large portions of the land overrun by weeds and trees. Worse, locals used the unkempt site as a dumping ground.
A turnaround began in 1978 when neighborhood volunteers began organizing weekend clean-ups to cut back the overgrowth and rid the site of trash. Clearing and maintenance work was later coordinated by the Lawnside Men’s Association. The group also researched veterans’ graves and placed flags by those markers on holidays. John Lawson was commemorated with a ceremony dedicating a new headstone in 2004.
In recent years, the Lawnside Historical Society has attempted to raise awareness of the cemetery’s history and the need for historic preservation through a number of methods.
The cemetery was listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 2008 and 2009, respectively, with grant support from the New Jersey Historic Trust and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The state grant also helped fund the preparation of a conditions assessment of the cemetery site and burial markers, a maintenance and restoration guidebook, and a regional workshop that demonstrated the proper way to care for the grounds and headstones to volunteers and stewards of other historic cemeteries.
An eight-minute documentary, “On Mount Peace,” produced in 2006 as part of the Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places series about community histories, aired on WHYY in 2007.
Despite this progress, the cemetery continues to be threatened by apathy, lack of public awareness and respect, and the need for new and younger leadership of the cemetery board. In addition, the recent poor economy has adversely affected the Cemetery Association’s investments, which fund the continued maintenance of the cemetery. The corner property itself is landlocked, the only open land on a commercial strip and surrounded by a self-storage business and townhouses on two sides. The site has no fence or security and no off-street parking.
Many burial markers, made from soft stone, are broken, toppled, sunken or deteriorated to the point of being unreadable. Despite the annual efforts of the volunteers, five acres of the cemetery are still overgrown and need to be cleared. The maintenance and preservation recommendations from the 2006 report need to be effectively communicated to willing volunteers, who need to learn the proper way to maintain the site without further damaging historically significant artifacts, headstones, or plantings.
There are several positive signs for the future of Mount Peace Cemetery. First, in 2012 the cemetery was featured as one of six sites associated with African-American History in Camden County’s “Pathways to Freedom” web site and podcasts (www.pathwaystofreedom.org). Local print and broadcast media attention drew new volunteers to coordinate land-clearing, clean up, maintenance, historic research, fund raising and outreach to families associated with historic burials. Since the start of the year, several clean-up days have been scheduled, contributions have been received and local businesses have donated equipment and materials. The cemetery board has begun the task of reorganizing and seeking technical support in order to gain tax-exempt status, which would enable it to accept charitable monetary donations or apply for foundation funding.
Progress is being made, but much work remains. The future of this treasure hinges on community support to continue the spirit of volunteerism that has, for the past 30 years, single-handedly celebrated and stewarded it. The Lawnside Historical Society and the Mount Peace Cemetery Association are making laudable strides, but they cannot do this alone. Preservation New Jersey applauds the hard work that is saving this rare intact reminder of how far our society has come and urges broad community engagement to help local advocates truly secure this landmark’s future.
Lawnside Historical Society