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Barbara Barksdale lowers her head and chuckles at the brief mention of her nickname. The lay historian from Steelton, Dauphin County, knows that she’s earned her humorous handle. She’s even incorporated it into her email address. “They call me the cemetery lady,” she says with just a hint of pride.

For more than two decades, Barksdale has tended to the needs of the historic Midland Cemetery in Swatara Township, a final resting place for thousands of African Americans, dating as far back as 1795. A quick walk among the headstones reveals the names of slaves, soldiers, athletes and more. One weathered stone belongs to Samuel E. Coles, who served in the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War. Other memorials stand for Buffalo Soldiers, African Americans who served in regiments during conflicts after the Civil War, and a few Tuskegee Airmen, black aviators who battled from cockpits during World War II. Another marker details a brief history of outfielder and five-time All-Star Herbert “Rap” Dixon (1902-42), who played on a number of Negro League baseball teams in the 1920s and ’30s. “These people are my ancestors and I care about all the people who are buried there,” Barksdale says. “I pray for all of them.”

 

Barbara Barksdale in Midland Cemetery at the grave of Civil War private Samuel E. Coles.

Barbara Barksdale in Midland Cemetery at the grave of Civil War private Samuel E. Coles. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

 

Barksdale has created a nonprofit group, Friends of Midland, to preserve, restore and maintain the cemetery. In 1998 Friends of Midland, under Barksdale’s direction, donated to The State Museum of Pennsylvania three 19th-century coffin handles and fittings discovered at the cemetery.

Recently, State Museum curator Diana Zeltmann came across the pieces stored in a box labeled “coffin parts” while working on the Collections Advancement Project, a current PHMC initiative to inventory all of the museum’s collections. A self-professed cemetery aficionado, Zeltmann researched the pieces, eventually discovering that they date to around 1870. The handles and fittings are engraved with textures and scroll designs, offering clues to their origins. The curator concluded that the artifacts came from the coffin (or coffins) of a person (or people) who had a high standing in life.

Barksdale found the pieces during the course of her preservation efforts at the cemetery. Through the years, heavy rains and shifts in the soil at the cemetery have brought many funerary artifacts to the surface. She’s not sure which grave (or graves) gave up these particular pieces.

The mystery peaks Zeltmann’s interest, but the fact that the pieces came from a cemetery in general was enough to drive her curiosity. From the time she was young, Zeltmann has enjoyed roaming around cemeteries, wondering what life was like for those now beneath the headstones. Rather than simply slip the donated coffin pieces back into a box, Zeltmann nominated her find for a place on Pennsylvania Treasures. Launched in July 2014 Pennsylvania Treasures shares the museum’s vast inventory of rarely exhibited art and artifacts with the public through weekly updates on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. Items exhibited range from locks of George Washington’s hair to Andy Warhol’s Little Red Book #133.

Although the preservation of Midland Cemetery has taken up a large part of Barksdale’s life for more than 20 years, that was never the plan. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” she says. “And it’s all been for history.” As a child, Barksdale and her family would visit Midland Cemetery in the spring to pay their respects to her Grandpop Dave Murray. Relatives would gather at his grave and say a few words. Shortly before leaving, Barksdale’s mother would place a bouquet of flowers on her father’s grave. Young Barbara Barksdale, however, never got the chance to witness those acts of sorrow and remembrance, because she suffered severe allergies and had to stay in the car. But that was not the end of her relationship with Midland Cemetery.

Years later, in 1991, Barksdale was driving home to Steelton with her son when the police diverted traffic because of a snowstorm. The detour took them past the cemetery. The brief side trip triggered a desire in Barksdale to clean her grandfather’s grave. She figured if she started clearing out the weeds and debris from the grave earlier in the year, her allergies wouldn’t be a concern.

Around that same time, Barksdale mentioned her strategy to a friend, who in turn remarked that she would simply stop with her grandfather’s grave and pay little attention to the other overgrown burials. “Well, that just made me mad,” she says. “I decided that I wasn’t going to focus on my grandfather. I was going to clean up everyone else first. Those comments from that woman made me mad. There is nothing worse than to get me upset and then I need to prove to you that I’m not going to do what you think I’m going to do. I cleaned up everyone else’s grave and then, before my sister died, I decided to clean up my grandfather’s grave.” More than 20 years later, Midland Cemetery is free from weeds and debris that would otherwise obscure the headstones.

Barksdale has taken it upon herself to research the names etched into the markers. Often she fields requests from people asking about specific burials. She turns to death and marriage records kept by the Pennsylvania State Archives and other local documents to help paint a picture of the lives led by those interred at Midland. For now, she catalogues the stories she discovers so that information might one day be shared, possibly online.

It’s the stories behind the names carved in stone that prompted Barksdale to donate her artifacts to the museum. “I donated the pieces because I wanted to make sure that the museum had artifacts that related back to black history,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that we were recognized for our contributions to the United States.”

 

Sean Adkins is an information specialist for PHMC. Look for his updates at Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.