The creation of Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County was a collaborative effort by African Americans to provide a sanctuary in the Philadelphia area where African Americans could be buried with dignity and respect.
Founded at the height of Jim Crow, six years after Plessy v. Ferguson, Eden Cemetery is Philadelphia’s African American answer to a burial crisis created by segregation, urban expansion, public works projects, and vandalism.
Having a dignified place for burial was a long-standing challenge to African Americans due to racism, but by the end of the 19th century the situation in Philadelphia grew dire with the closures of Lebanon and Olive cemeteries and the enactment of municipal ordinances that in effect prohibited the creation of new African American cemeteries within City limits.
Opened in 1902, Eden represented African American agency to address this problem by establishing a new cemetery in suburban Delaware County on 53 acres that were part of Bartram Farm, and as a “collection cemetery” for dislocated earlier 18th and 19th century Black burial grounds and cemeteries.
Not without challenges, on August 12, 1902, Collingdale’s residents protested “a colored burial ground” in their community by blocking the entrance to the cemetery and with a court injunction.
The headline in the August 13th, Chester County Times read: “Collingdale Has More Race Troubles, Town Council Has No Use for a Colored Funeral, No African Need Apply.” When a temporary compromise was reached, Eden was able to have its first burial on August 14, 1902.
The cemetery became a beacon of community pride. African American heritage was represented through the designation of its cemetery sections. Examples of which are the Richard Allen, Octavius V. Catto, Frederick Douglass and the Harriet Tubman sections. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper chose the John Brown section as her final resting place.
Today, Eden is a monument to the national African American civil rights story and to Philadelphia’s 7th Ward, whose many residents are buried there. Monuments throughout the cemetery memorialize the lives of those who are an important part of history and of the communities they represent.
“Citizens of Eden” include:
- Marian Anderson,
- Julian Abele,
- Octavius V. Catto,
- James Forten,
- Caroline LeCount,
- Harriet and Stephen Smith,
- Letitia and William Still,
- Charles Albert Tindley, William Whipper, and
- George Henry White.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, Eden cemetery is still an active cemetery with over 90,000 graves on 53 acres of land.
Preserving Eden’s Stories
A current project is the preservation of Eden’s archival records. These records are a bedrock for research and the interpretation of important stories of national and local African American history and of cultural heritage.
Protecting these historical records will keep the lived stories of people and communities from vanishing and will preserve legacy for future generations. Decades of use and storage in imperfect conditions have taken their toll.
Protecting these records also means getting them into safe housing and secure storage. Preserving the records requires stabilization, conservation, having them transcribed and digitized, and entered into a records management system so they can continue to be used without further risk of damage. This will ensure accessibility, encourage discovery, and engage the public in the use of these unique resources.
The project began with a Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories Study conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and produced a finding aid to the records which can be viewed online at the Philadelphia Area Archives Research Portal hosted by the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2020, Eden was awarded a Historical and Archival Records Care Grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a grant from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and created a GoFundMe to assist with the cost of an institutional and a historical records preservation assessment being conducted by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, archival supplies, fireproof cabinets, and a project archivist.
Historic Eden Cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is a part of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project and is a proud member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASAALH).
A unique resource, the past, present, and future converge at Eden, reflecting a broad spectrum of American history, heritage, culture, and memory.
Eden looks to the future with a continued focus on stewardship and service and a strong consideration of how the cemetery will adapt to the ever-changing needs of the community so that Eden can continue to preserve memory and protect legacy well into the next century.
Today’s Guest Contributor is Friends of Eden Cemetery.
You can learn more about their work by visiting their website at www.edencemetery.org or following them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Cemetery/Historic-Eden-Cemetery-107810874449683/.