Thanks to a four-way collaboration, a new website will soon make it possible for local and distant members of the black community to learn about their ancestors who lived in Gettysburg.
Historians and others interested in the lives of Adams County’s black population will also find the new resource invaluable.
The website will be interactive, allowing people doing genealogical research and studying family histories to add biographical details and photographs to the profiles of their deceased relatives.
The research tool was described Saturday at a gathering attended by over 30 people in United Lutheran Seminary’s Valentine Hall. While the website with its extensive database is not yet active, participants at the meeting will receive email notifications when it goes live soon.
Development of the database and website was spearheaded by a Gettysburg College senior, Andrew Dalton, who works part time at the Adams County Historical Society (ACHS). Dalton is assisted by the college’s information technology department and two other students who are creating the website and designing software with unique features.
Basic biographical information about several hundred local black residents has been gleaned by Dalton and others from records about those who are buried in the Lincoln Cemetery near the Gettysburg Rec Park.
Critical support for the project and ongoing preservation of Gettysburg’s black history and heritage is being provided by the Gettysburg Black History Museum and the Lincoln Cemetery Project Association.
Jane Nutter, president of the Black History Museum board of directors, said, “We have a group of committed folks on the board who know that black history is part of American history.”
Nutter, whose sister Mary Alice, was the group’s founder and first president, praised Dalton’s efforts.
“I’m very proud of Andrew and what he’s done,” she said.
In his welcome to the hour-long informative session, ACHS Executive Director Ben Neely said he and the historical society “have been so enthusiastic about collecting this history” and enabling a vision long held by many “to now come alive.”
Dalton, who will graduate from Gettysburg College this month with majors in history and political science, acknowledged “since I am not black, I can never fully understand.” Nevertheless, in his studies of local history and conversations with black residents he recognized many “feel their stories have not been told.”
Since many historians “have pushed black history to the margins,” said Dalton, he and others at the college and historical society committed themselves “to provide better support and enable people to access their history.”
After recording the names from over 200 headstones at Lincoln Cemetery, Dalton and others pored over death certificates, tax records, photographs, marriage certificates and newspaper obituaries to compile basic biographies of those whose final resting places are in Gettysburg’s third ward.
As their research proceeded, they discovered information about at least an additional 225 citizens who lie in unmarked graves at the cemetery. Among the dead are 30 veterans of the Civil War’s “colored troops” who fought as Union soldiers.
The recent research has also shed more light on the history of racism and segregation in Adams County. The students came upon a manuscript written in the 1950s that documented an increase in segregation from 1900 onward. The document’s author stated that “while the military victory to end slavery happened here in 1863, the battle for social equality is still being fought.”
Long-time Gettysburg resident Betty Dorsey Myers has written about the history of Lincoln Cemetery and its wider significance in a book entitled “Segregation in Death.”
Myers pointed to the necessity of preserving the cemetery, which she described as “the only concrete thing that tells us black people were here.”
At Saturday’s meeting, Myers, who serves as the organization’s president, encouraged support for the Lincoln Cemetery Project Association’s efforts to maintain the sacred grounds.
The association may be contacted at 717-334-3541. Information about the Black History Museum is available at www.gettysburgblackhistory.org.
Following description of the project and plans for the website launch, Dalton and Neely were eager to receive feedback and suggestions from community members.
Participants urged that a research training workshop be held to assist people seeking information about their ancestors. Also suggested were links with the Seminary Ridge Museum, National Park Service and local public schools to promote greater interest in black history.
Dalton expressed confidence that those who will carry the project forward will heed the suggestions and be eager for ongoing user feedback. The budding historian, who said the project “is the most important work I’ve ever done,” concluded, “all history should be tied to community service.”