The African American community has been an integral part of the local fabric from the time Newtown was founded. During the first half of the 19th century, the Leedom Farm, the Pine Grove Farm and the Archam-bault House were all said to have been sites on the Underground Railroad.
In addition, it is widely known that Frederick Douglass visited Bucks County in 1864 and spoke before large crowds at Newtown, Pineville, and Penn’s Manor on three successive days. He came to Bucks County at the invitation of Mahlon B. Linton, of Newtown, one of the county’s leading abolitionists, who often hosted anti-slavery activists when they visited the area. Douglass spoke at Newtown Hall (now Newtown Theatre) on Thursday, Feb. 4, 1864.
Early records indicate that the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has been a source of fellowship for Newtown’s African American community since the early 1800s.
St. Mark A.M.E. Zion Church was founded in Newtown around 1820, as the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church. Soon afterwards, members built a small frame meetinghouse high on the hill overlooking Newtown at the corner of Frost Lane and Congress Street.
Unfortunately, the congregation faced resistance, and the church burned in 1821, and the congregation scattered. The church was rebuilt on that same location high on the hill, but it too burned again in 1840 and the fire could be seen for many miles, which gave way to the nickname “Lighthouse Hill.”
The original church cemetery from 1854 is still in use today.
The third structure that housed the AME Church was built at the intersection of Frost Lane and State Street, where the trolley turned after crossing the Newtown Creek. Shortly thereafter in 1857, that building also succumbed to a fire of incendiary origins, reportedly caused by boys using it for “unreligious” gatherings.
Undeterred, the fourth structure was erected behind 136 N. Congress St. in 1858 on a lot owned by Leah Evans. In the late 1800s, this site was the worshiping place of both the Methodist and the Baptist faiths.
The Baptists eventually built their own church in about 1914, the Macedonia Baptist Church, located at 218 N. State St.
In 1897, a wooden frame structure was replaced by the present Gothic Revival brick church that is located at 136 N. Congress St. and is a registered historic building.
Around 1950, attempts were made to get the borough to maintain the Lighthouse Hill Cemetery, as it was a common misunderstanding that it was to be maintained solely by the St. Marks and Macedonia Baptist churches. Since the cemetery was Newtown’s free cemetery, a non-sectarian and non-denominational cemetery, the Newtown Community Welfare Council took over the maintenance of the Lighthouse Hill Cemetery in 1965.
For more than 150 years, Lighthouse Hill Cemetery has served as the burial location for numerous African American residents. Although time tells us that hundreds of burials took place here, very few individuals had the means to afford grave markers.
Consequently, the official archived list of recorded burials in the Lighthouse Hill Cemetery contained fewer than 100 names. Recently, with the aid of several online resources, 186 individuals have been documented as being buried in the Lighthouse Hill Cemetery.
Although the majority of the graves are unmarked, lacking proper grave markers, a number of plots are decorated with veterans’ flags. Specifically, there are 12 African American Civil War veterans buried in the Lighthouse Hill Cemetery.
In addition to these 12, there are many other African American servicemen buried here.
Research indicates that Lighthouse Hill veteran burials also include individuals who served our country in World War I (7), World War II (11) and Korea (4).
The Lighthouse Hill Cemetery has a deep history that lies quietly beneath the green grass that covers hundreds of unmarked graves high on the hill overlooking Newtown.
It is a story of resilience, rebuilding and service to our country. It is a story of slavery and men serving to fight for their freedom. It is a beacon of light emanating from the ashes. It is ultimately a story that should make any Newtonian proud.
Brian Rounsavill is the first vice president of the Newtown Historic Association.
“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.
• Miscellaneous Correspondence and Notes, Newtown Historic Association Archives.
• Historic Newtown, C. Callahan, P. Gouza, and B. Rounsavill, 2001, p. 67.
• Lighthouse Hill Cemetery by Ned Barnsley, The Newtown Enterprise, July 26, 1951, p. 7, Article No. 182.
• Newtown Heritage Walk, St. Mark AME Zion Church, Site #25.
• Potter’s Field by Ned Barnsley, The Newtown Enterprise, Jan. 11, 1940, p. 8.
• Potter’s Field on Lighthouse Hill by Ned Barnsley, The Newtown Enterprise, Jan. 18, 1940, p. 8.
• When Frederick Douglass Visited Bucks County by T.A. McNealy, Old Bucks County, Vol. II, Issue IV, 1994, p. 8.