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"Community members build back Homestead cemetery and make Juneteenth discovery"

The following article was published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday, July 5, 2021. Written by Boyce Buchanan, photographs credited to Emily Matthews of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All rights reserved for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

We were honored to speak with Ms. Buchanan and Ms. Matthews during our June Board Meeting and June Volunteer Day. Thank you ladies for such a wonderful write-up!

"Some of the oldest gravestones in the Homestead Cemetery had degraded into illegibility years ago, a product of more than 100 years of weather and neglect. Now, grave markers in the cemetery’s Soldiers Circle are being replaced, and visitors can see the names of Civil War soldiers who are interred there for the first time in decades. On June 19, volunteer members of the Homestead Cemetery Association began the process of replacing headstones in the Soldiers Circle, which consists of 41 graves around a striking bronze monument of a Union soldier. They hope to eventually replace around 35 of them. “From what I understand, no one really knew when they started this project who was actually buried in a lot of these graves,” said Ellis Michaels, who volunteers at the cemetery. “So this was not only trying to figure out who they were, but then trying to make sure that their graves are now going to be properly marked so that they can be identified in case any family should ever want to come and say, ‘Great-great-grandfather’s supposed to be buried here. Do you know where?’ We can now show them, which to me is very important.” Volunteers, worried that day about inclement weather, initially planned to install just two grave markers, according to Mr. Michaels. They were for Civil War soldiers William J. Stoup, who rose to the rank of sergeant of Company C within the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and James Hart, who fought in Company E within the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry. Hart’s regiment fought in Gettysburg, as well as in Petersburg, Va., and in Appomattox Court House, Va., where the war ended with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Stoup’s regiment did not fare as well. After fighting in Yorktown, Va., the majority of the regiment was captured in Plymouth, Va., in 1864. At Homestead Cemetery, the weather cleared and volunteers unpacked one more marker. The information on the headstone was apt for the day.

A figure lost to time

“I didn't understand the inscription because normally I can tell it’s, you know, 154th Pennsylvania Infantry or something. But this one said 45th USCI, and I couldn't figure out what the CI was,” Mr. Michaels said.

“I realized that he was a member of the 45th Pennsylvania Colored Infantry. And then [the volunteers] looked at each other, and we said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is Juneteenth, the first time that it’s being celebrated as a federal holiday. And here we are, restoring the grave marker of a soldier who was part of that whole Civil War.’”

The Rev. Samuel Giffenney, who died in 1911 at about the age of 68, served in the Civil War in Company B of the 45th United States Colored Infantry. The infantry comprised previously enslaved and free-born Black soldiers primarily from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey and Virginia.

Giffenney, a forgotten soldier of the Civil War, enlisted at the age of 20 in Waterford, Erie County, in 1864.

Members of the 45th USCI became the first Black soldiers to march at a presidential inauguration when they paraded at Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration. Giffenney’s regiment also was present at the fall of Petersburg and at Lee’s surrender in Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Additionally, after the war ended, Giffenney’s regiment was stationed in Texas on June 19, 1865, the day when Union troops announced to the people still enslaved in that state that all slaves had been freed. The day is now officially celebrated nationally as Juneteenth.

Cutting away the grass: a community claims its cemetery

The board members of the Homestead Cemetery Association, which was founded in July 2020, hope to keep the stories of individuals like Giffenney alive, but in recent years, that has been difficult. The previous owners of the cemetery went bankrupt in 2015 and abandoned the place, which fell into disrepair.

“There was a sense that something wrong occurred,” Ben Lighthall, a long-time volunteer at the cemetery, said. “It didn’t seem right to leave it abandoned the way it was, especially how it got abandoned. They weren’t paying the caretaker. And there were a couple of seasons I guess it just lay fallow like that. Nobody knew what to do, what was possible.”

Many of the volunteers and current board members have generations of family buried in the cemetery, and they did not like seeing 3-foot-tall grass obscure the memorials of their loved ones.

Brandon Potts was the first one to cut the chain that had barred visitors from entering the cemetery. Mr. Potts and his brother Cory, who is now the groundskeeper, put together a Facebook page in the summer of 2016 for a kickoff cut of the grass, and 109 people showed up. “We were trespassing, but we didn’t care because we wanted to do something about the situation and make it a lot better,” Brandon Potts said.

The community grass cutting went on for about 2½ summers, but then life and jobs started getting in the way for the volunteers.

However, the creation of the new association board with new bylaws, a revamped website and people dedicated to the cemetery have turned things around.

“I think that we’ve proven over the year that we do have the best interest of the place and we’re working hard to try to sustain it forever,” Rusty Firestone, the vice president of the board, said. “I mean, because this is our home. This is our history.”

The community seems to agree. When the board started a fundraising campaign at the beginning of the year, it raised almost $25,000. Its goal had been $5,000. The funds have allowed the association to rebuild faster than initially planned, including getting electricity and water running again.

However, Mr. Firestone noted that the cemetery still won’t be sustainable until they can start selling lots again, which they can’t do until they get records sorted out. The group is not funded by any municipality, according to Mr. Firestone, so currently all the money the association has to work with comes from community donations.

Mr. Firestone also said that they are always open to new volunteers who would be able to help with anything from digging into historical records to discovering more about those buried at the cemetery to cutting the grass.

A place full of stories

According to board member Kyra Mangold-Ostovich, the community volunteers who make up the new board initially decided to replace the illegible markers in the Soldiers Circle as “a nice way to be able to do something with the limited budget that we started with.” “It was just really chilling, in a sense, to see this all come together and to be able to give these people the recognition that is owed to them,” Ms. Mangold-Ostovich said.

But, given the deterioration of the soft gravestones and the scattered documentation due to the cemetery’s bankruptcy, how were they able to figure out which individuals were buried where? It started with a chance meeting between Ms. Mangold-Ostovich and Linda Asmonga. Mrs. Asmonga and her husband, John, had spent hundreds of hours in the Carnegie Library of Homestead conducting independent research on individuals in the cemetery, especially those in the Soldiers Circle.

With their knowledge, garnered from poring over cemetery records, obituaries and articles in city newspapers, military musters and Grand Army of the Republic memberships, the Homestead Cemetery Association was able to apply for Veterans Affairs replacement markers and start compiling histories on the individuals in the circle.

“Without their research, I think we still would not have a true idea of who was where in that circle,” Ms. Mangold-Ostovich said.

Mr. Michaels brought the equipment needed to replace the eroded markers. Though he is a registered nurse, he picked up the skill of installing grave markers, along with the tools needed to do it, through his love of genealogy.

The organization worked with the nonprofit Shrouded Veterans in order to apply for new markers of the Civil War veterans and other veterans who encircle Homestead Cemetery’s Soldiers Monument. So far, eight applications for new markers have been approved, and three gravestones have already been replaced.

“We are working really hard to get it back to a thriving cemetery in the future so we can celebrate all of the history that is included in its grounds,” Ms. Mangold-Ostovich said. She added that the board members would like to do a dedication when all of the gravestones in the Soldiers Circle are renewed. If they could find family members of those in the circle, she said, it would be “amazing” to have them present.

“If you walk through the cemetery, it’s just a living, breathing history of our whole community,” Mr. Firestone said. “Like you go through when you look at the stones and you see, ‘Oh, so that’s where that street name comes from.’”"

Boyce Buchanan: and Twitter @BuchananBoyce.

First Published July 5, 2021, 5:56am

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