A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Locust Grove Cemetery in Shippensburg. Photo by David Maher

Locust Grove Cemetery in Shippensburg. Photo by David Maher

The town of Shippensburg, in the heart of the Cumberland Valley, was first settled in the 1730s. Some of the Europeans who moved into the area brought African American slaves with them. The exact number of slaves is unknown; it was not until after Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery that the numbers of slaves and slaveholders were recorded. Nevertheless, Shippensburg, the second oldest Pennsylvania town west of the Susquehanna River, became home to one of the oldest continuous African American communities in central Pennsylvania. Because slaves could not own property, there is little trace of African American heritage from that time remaining on the historic landscape in the area. That changed with emancipation.

A town lot map of Shippensburg, drawn around 1790–1800, provides the earliest known reference to a historic African American burial ground. At the edge of the centuries-old map, on a rocky knoll surrounded by empty lots along North Queen Street, was a property simply noted as “Negro Graveyard.” At the time, Cumberland County was the largest slaveholding county in Pennsylvania. As slavery receded in eastern counties after the 1780 act, the recorded number of slaves grew in Cumberland County to 307 by 1810, up from 223 in 1790, because more slaveholders had moved into the state’s western frontier. Meanwhile in 1800 Shippensburg’s population of free African Americans was growing with 37 individuals, more than double the enslaved population in the town. Although it is unknown exactly when burials began at the cemetery, the designation of the segregated graveyard illustrates the rapid growth of the African American population, enslaved and free.

The Shippen family, the proprietors of the town, eventually began leasing the parcel to the African American community at-large at a cost of $20 a year. By 1834 a log African Methodist Episcopal church was constructed at the North Queen Street Cemetery. Shippensburg’s AME congregation had been established in 1817, only one year after the founding of the AME denomination, making it one of the earliest AME churches in the country. In 1842 the property was officially deeded to the community “for the purpose of erecting a place of worship and Burying the Dead of the black people of Shippensburg and for no other purpose whatever.” This momentous action gave Shippensburg’s African American community full ownership and control over a property that had become so critically important to their cultural and spiritual identity. The community now had a place of their own to gather and remember loved ones. Eventually, around 1850, the log church was replaced by a more substantial brick church, prominently located at the front of the cemetery along the street.

Over time, as the community around the church and burial ground continued to grow, so did the cemetery itself.  By 1922, after more than 100 years of burials and with no official plot map, it became difficult to know where to dig without disturbing previous graves. In response, the North Queen Street section was closed and the land to the rear of the cemetery was opened to new burials. The newly expanded burial ground area became known as the Locust Grove Cemetery, and it still accepts new burials to this day.

Gravestone of Civil War veteran John Shirk at Locust Grove Cemetery. Photo by David Maher

Gravestone of Civil War veteran John Shirk at Locust Grove Cemetery. Photo by David Maher

Although the Locust Grove Cemetery reflects the long history of Shippensburg and its African American community, it is the people interred there that tell the stories. Richard Baker (1797–1879), born as a slave in Shippensburg, was the longtime minister of the AME church, which was later renamed in his honor in 1886. Both he and his wife Hannah were highly regarded community leaders. When they passed away, both were buried near the church’s eastern foundation.

Shippensburg’s participation in the Armed Forces is also well represented within the cemetery. Twenty-six veterans of segregated units from the Civil War are buried there, including brothers John and James Shirk who enlisted respectively in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, the Union’s first African American units. Other veterans buried at Locust Grove include Walter Massey, who served with the 9th Cavalry (“Buffalo Soldiers”) in the Spanish-American War, and Joseph Rideout, who served with the 303rd Stevedore Regiment in World War I.

By the early 1920s, Shippensburg’s African American community began to organize Memorial Day events at the cemetery to celebrate their contribution to the nation. Eventually, the day included a separate parade, referred to by the community as the “Black Parade,” which wound its way through the African American neighborhoods in Shippensburg and ended at the cemetery. Although there is no longer a parade, an annual Memorial Day ceremony in the cemetery still takes place.

In recent years, with help from Shippensburg University faculty and students, the historic burial ground and its important stories have been documented, preserved and shared with the public. In 2007 a Pennsylvania Historical Marker was installed and dedicated at the cemetery, and in 2011 the property was determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; the procedures for nomination are currently in progress.


Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Mason and Dixon West Line Milestone Markers 76 and 77, Cumberland Township, Adams County; C. F. Martin & Co., Nazareth, Northampton County; and Hugh and Elizabeth Ross Whiteford House, Delta, York County.


David Maher is a historic preservation specialist who coordinates the National Register Program for the central part of the state at PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.