In the lush ground behind the Middletown Friends Meeting House in Langhorne — a local stronghold for Quakers — hundreds of people are buried here, in unmarked graves.

Some of the anonymity is intentional, because Quakers in the 1700s were buried in services so austere that headstones were considered vanities. (In the 1800s, more Quakers began to label graves with stones.) But near the graves of the Quakers who insisted on anonymous burials are those of slaves who ended up in the cemetery not by choice, but by circumstance.

They have no grave markers, no headstones, no death certificates, no recognition that they once lived and labored on the land of local Quaker slaveowners from 1693 to 1703. Knowing that slaves were buried and made to live and work in a place they never agreed to didn't sit well with Middletown Friends member Holly Olson.

So, she asked Gerlyn Williford and Roger Brown, of the African American Museum of Bucks County,  if they would join a newly created Middletown Friends committee that would become the driving force for a memorial to recognize the slaves and freed slaves buried on Quaker ground.

Williford and Brown signed on. So did Langhorne resident Brenda Cowan. Then, other Middletown Friends members came aboard, bringing to 14 the number of people committed to helping create the memorial.

On Oct. 6, the Middletown Friends, whose congregation started in 1683, will unveil the Memorial for the Forgotten Slaves, a boulder with a bronze plaque placed in the cemetery during a 1 p.m. ceremony at the Middletown Friends House, followed by a reception. The event will be open to the public.

"By memorializing that burial ground, we're recognizing the strength of those who overcame the horrors of slavery and established an independent, autonomous black community in the first generations of freedom," said Jesse Crooks, a Bucks County historian invited to speak at the ceremony.

The ceremony will also serve as a way to acknowledge some cultural and religious rituals, such as singing and dancing, often observed by blacks during funeral services and burial of the dead.

When people die, African Americans rejoice that their loved ones are "going home," Cowan said, "and that's a joyful thing."

A grave absent a tombstone is Quaker culture, Olson added, "but not the African American culture. So we want to mark this area with a memorial marker for them."

During the ceremony, the Lincoln University Gospel Choir and professional singer Keith Spencer will perform, Olson said, and a speaker will read aloud manumissions, or legal documents that freed slaves from their owners.

Headstone for slaveholder Joseph Jenks, who freed his slaves and is now buried among them.
BEVERLY SCHAEFER
Headstone for slaveholder Joseph Jenks, who freed his slaves and is now buried among them.

Olson noted that not all Quakers — who were known for promoting equality and simplicity and later staunchly supporting abolitionism and the Underground Railroad — owned slaves, but those who did were forced to decide between freeing their slaves or keeping them. After 1776, those who chose to keep slaves were rejected by other Quakers.

No one knows the names or number of people buried at the Middletown Friends' graveyard, Olson said, despite the Quakers' penchant for keeping meticulous records, of which tens of thousands of documents recording everything from Quaker history to meeting minutes are neatly stored at Swarthmore College's Friends Historical Library.

There is one exception. At the front of the Middletown Friends Meeting House in a smaller burial ground, Olson said the Middletown Friends know a freed black man, Cato Adams, was buried in 1812 near a thicket of trees close to West Maple Avenue. Like so many others buried on the property, Adams, who attended Middletown Friends meetings, was placed in an unmarked grave, Olson said.

But there are others who are unrecognized, Olson said, and "that was very troubling."

Brenda Cowan (left) of Langhorne and Holly Olson, a member of the Middletown Friends Meeting, near a headstone of Joseph Jenks.
BEVERLY SCHAEFER
Brenda Cowan (left) of Langhorne and Holly Olson, a member of the Middletown Friends Meeting, near a headstone of Joseph Jenks.

As attendees file in to view the memorial next month, Olson said, the marker will read: "This plaque is in remembrance of the forgotten slaves who were owned by members of Middletown Monthly Meeting."

"They were buried in unmarked graves on this land from 1693 until 1703," she said, reading a copy of the inscription. "We now stand as witnesses to their existence as enslaved people. We acknowledge that they lived and did not die in vain."

Her voice, choked by tears, broke as she finished reading.

There's something else for the memorial: a poem etched on the boulder's plaque. Cowan wrote it one evening in late July, seated at her kitchen table in Langhorne.

"I've come to the end of the road," it begins.

My days of living in bondage is done.

The sun has set for me.

Yes, I've crossed over to glory.

Why cry for a soul that is finally, finally free."