During the research for this project, we were able to get our hands on some information on a few of the Civil War veterans buried there. While reading their biographies, I was introduced to a gentleman by the name of Lewis Thomas. Lewis was born here in Mifflin County in the late 1820s. In 1861, he and a group of other African Americans from our area (82 in fact) decided to relocate to Haiti. This emigration was happening all over the country with thousands of African Americans leaving everything they had ever known in search of a better life. They could not envision a world where they would be accepted and treated as equals here and felt they had no choice but to move to a location where they could begin a new life.
Lewis co-authored a letter written while in Haiti that appeared in the Lewistown Gazette. He described the optimistic attitude shared by the group. He wrote, “The emigrants appear to think they have found a land of promise.” They were settling in, planting crops, and making plans to bring family members, whom they were forced to leave behind, to join them. Everyone was excited and hopeful.
This dream of a better life in Haiti would soon come crashing down as their settlement crumbled in disaster. We don’t know a lot of details as to why the endeavor failed since only a few individuals ever returned to Lewistown. For one thing, the extreme heat was unbearable, and many died from disease. Thomas was one of the few fortunate ones who did return to Lewistown.
Lewis made it back to Lewistown just in time to join the United States Army to serve in the Civil War in 1863. He was 35 years old when he traveled to Camp William Penn, which was located in Montgomery County, for training. This training camp was one of the first dedicated to African American troops during the Civil War. He was described as a slight man, standing just 5’6”. There he was assigned to the 8th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops.
One can only imagine the trepidation he must have experienced as he stepped off a railroad car in the afternoon and directly engaged in his first battle. His regiment, though out maneuvered, fought bravely, suffering heavy casualties. This was the only battle Lewis was to experience since he was severely wounded and transported to a hospital where he remained, recuperating, for a year.
Lewis did eventually make it back to Lewistown where he married a woman named Anna. He remained here until his death from the “grippe” (the flu) in 1893 at the age of 65. He and Anna, as well as many others, are laid to rest in the African American Memorial Cemetery. Although long since forgotten by many, they each have a story, a past, a legacy. Next time you drive past, I encourage you to pause for a moment to reflect on their stories and their sacrifices. It was through the bravery and self-sacrifice of these brave United States Colored Troops that we enjoy the freedoms we have today.
Black History Month, honoring the past, inspiring the future.
Rhonda S. Kelley, Executive Director, Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce
Contributions to the African American Cemetery Restoration Project can be mailed to the Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce, One West Market Street, Lewistown, PA 17044. Please place the project name in the memo.