Dolly Marshall on preserving Black History for future generations

by Amina Diakite

“When it comes to Black records…there's always a fire.”- Dolly Marshall.

It would be obvious to note that America, and more broadly the surrounding world, has complicated the lives of Black people within the African diaspora due to the Atlantic slave trade, which started in the 15th century, displacing 10-12 million African souls and bodies across the world.

In the 21st century, it is commonly impossible for Black people to trace back lineage in the Americas due to the intentional lack of documentation and reckless mishandling of Black enslaved people. At the same time, racism ensured that even in death, Black people would be segregated and excluded from white-only cemeteries forcing Black communities to create their own spaces to honor their ancestors.

Camden, New Jersey native, Dolly Marshall, is a proud preservationist, activist, and educator at Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside, New Jersey. She is now serving on the executive board of trustees for the Mount Peace Association and fondly remembers the cemetery as a child, passing it several times on her rides home during her family's summer vacations in Lawnside. At a young age, Marshall had an interest in history, fascinated by things from the past. Her parents always provided their family with an endless supply of books, exemplifying their beliefs and values for education, giving Marshall her initial introduction to world history. “Education was very important for my parents and for their children. I come from a long line of teachers and preachers. There's a lot of reverence [in my family] for ministers, pastors, educators.”

Marshall graduated from Camden County College with her associate's degree and had several jobs before landing at Mount Peace Cemetery, including becoming a flight attendant and licensed esthetician. She is currently enrolled at Rutgers University and is expected to graduate this spring with a degree in Africana Studies. Still holding several positions as an adult, Marshall is also the Interpretation & Education Associate at Pinelands Preservations Alliance, an organization whose mission is to preserve the Pine Barren ecosystem and create public awareness around Pinelands and issues of preservation.

Marshall's interest in Mount Peace Cemetery began after her father passed in 2008, which left her with a longing for a connection to her roots. She vowed to learn as much as she could about her family’s ancestry. “For a time [everything] just left me. It took the wind out of my sails. And I didn't want to do much of anything. I had stopped doing a lot of different things that had brought me joy. But, I knew that's not the legacy that he wanted to leave. So I picked up and continued on, and one of the things that he also was interested in [was history]. He loved learning about the African continent, and all the countries, just everything. He was always a curious man. And I got that curiosity from him. He was curious about people and places up until the day he left this earth. As a love letter to my parents, I wanted to make sure that I found out as much as I could about their family, their ancestors. That's how I could give back.”

Mount Peace Cemetery was organized in 1900. During this time, African Americans were excluded from other non-secular burial grounds.

Mount Peace Cemetery served the African American population in the tri-state area, previously known as a free haven for enslaved Africans. It was one of few that would help African American people after Reconstruction. “Even in death, we were segregated. So, [Mount Peace Cemetery] was created by prominent African American men to provide a place where we could be buried with dignity,” Marshall said.

After an injury, Marshall was homebound, allowing her time to investigate her genealogy. She found that her great grandfather, a Civil War veteran, was buried in Johnson Cemetery on Soldiers Row, another cemetery that helped African Americans during the 1800s and onward. Since then, she has been able to track down 14 other relatives and ancestors buried and connected to Mount Peace Cemetery. She began volunteering at Mount Peace Cemetery about four years ago, which had become an overgrown illegal dumping ground over the years. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she spent most of her days in the cemetery cleaning up and working to repair and identify tombstones with the few records that survived after a fire that occurred on the grounds years prior.

Reverend Alexander Heritage Newton Grave

On the cemetery grounds, gatekeepers were in charge of housing all records. After the fire at Mount Peace Cemetery, all records were destroyed except one book of documents with 20 years of burial records. Anything before 1947, Marshall explained, was lost. Walking through the cemetery for several months many gravesites were identified by Marshall and her team to be the final resting place for veterans and other important figures. “We have an African Princess buried there from Sierra Leone. We have many notable people like the United States Colored Troops, veterans well over probably 130 plus and counting. We have a Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Henry Lawson, who was also a Civil War veteran. And we also have a newly designated burial site for Reverend Alexander Heritage Newton. Newton has a storied career. He wrote his autobiography and served as a corporal and sergeant during the Civil War. At 17 years old, he worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping people escape to freedom. Afterward, he became a minister and a pioneer in the AME Church for 50-plus years. The National Park Service Network to Freedom Program just designated his burial at Mount Peace as a historic site.

Identifying graves, as well as mapping the cemetery, has been difficult at times. Some graves have original funeral markers; some have shells surrounding them, indicating an ancient African burial custom; others have the significant marker of the yucca plant, along with the prickly pear, another African tradition. Due to Marshall's research and diligent efforts, the National Park Service designated the cemetery a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site because of its historical presence and function.

Service Day with Bishop Eustance H.S. at Mount Peace Cemetry

“As a child, I was rather fond of cemeteries, they never made me feel uneasy. Cemeteries were always a place I knew, where our ancestors were, a place that should be respected. I've done everything I can to increase public awareness, to help educate the public and understand the importance of preservation of African American cemeteries, burial grounds, and the history that is contained within. I come from a long line of activists [ I am a voice that speaks up when I see wrong. [Mount Peace Cemetery] is a place of beauty and reflection for me. I don't take it lightly [or] for granted, but I work hard to bring as much awareness and attention to [ peoples historical narratives] not dates. Its the little dash in between, I tell people, It's my purpose to get to that dash, the dash between represents a life lived to me.”

Dolly Marshall State House in Trenton

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