Ongoing vandalism in historic Black cemetery challenges congregation

Every now and then over the past six years or so, Newark Pastor Blaine Hackett has received shocking news that the graveyard of St. John’s African Methodist Church has been vandalized.

Usually a fence has been broken in or garbage left in the cemetery. Periodically, vandals throw away devices and furniture or, more seriously, damage the entrance gate of the cemetery.

Almost always, the historic Black Church, which dates back to the mid-1800s, has been able to handle repairs in-house. The damage, Hackett said, was generally cheap enough that members of the congregation could regroup and cover the costs.

But that has changed recently with the worst desecration the church graveyard has seen since Hackett became pastor nine years ago.

Since September, vandals have knocked down the fences of the cemetery at St. John's African Methodist Church, bent the wrought-iron gate, painted the walkway leading to the cemetery and graffiti gravestones.

Since September, vandals have knocked down more cemetery fences, bent the wrought-iron gate, poured paint on the path leading to the cemetery and graffiti graffiti.

Grave stelae have been knocked down and at least one gravestone – that of Hackett’s great-grandfather – has completely disappeared.

“I’m really disturbed by how it’s escalating,” Hackett said. “We put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs and they haven’t even been in place for two weeks, but when I went there on Monday they were demolished.”

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Hackett said he had no reason to believe the vandalism was racially motivated. Newark Police spokesman Lt. Andrew Rubin echoed him, saying there was no indication the damage was race-related.

Rubin said the cemetery has been used as a crossing for years and his problems are not new.

Whatever the motives of the vandals, Hackett said the destruction must stop.

“My heart really breaks because no one has respect for those who have passed away,” he said. “They also need to understand that it’s not just about those resting there.”

“These are the families who are still there. They want to come and see their loved ones without all this madness, all this debris.”

“A vestige of the black community”

St. John’s African Methodist Church did not always have the name it bears today.

Around 1848, the residents of Black Newark organized the congregation, holding the first services in a log cabin. The land on which the cabin stood was ceded to administrators of the Protestant Methodist Church in 1850, according to Delaware public records.

About 15 years later, in 1866, the congregation merged with the African Union Church, which was founded in Wilmington in 1813 as the first incorporated religious body controlled entirely by black residents.

The new denomination became the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, and the log cabin was replaced by the current church in 1867.

Since September, vandals have knocked down the fences of the cemetery at St. John's African Methodist Church, bent the wrought-iron gate, painted the walkway leading to the cemetery and graffiti graffiti.

Several decades later, in December 1890, the Newark congregation was officially named St. John’s AUMP Church. In the 1960s, the church was “largely” remodeled, then renamed the St. John’s African Methodist Church in 1996.

Although the cemetery has been around as long as the church, it has never been located on the same property. While Hackett said he didn’t know the story behind it, he speculated that his short distance from the church may embolden the vandals.

That doesn’t offer any comfort, however, the pastor said.

“It’s a holdover from the black community that was once in Newark,” Hackett said. “People have no respect for those who came before us. This world is really, as the old people said, going to hell in a hand basket.”

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Following the recent destruction, Newark Police have erected at least one camera and are more actively patrolling the area, Hackett said. The pastor added that he hopes to raise funds to install Ring security cameras.

While the increased police presence is a good start, Hackett said the real task will be to restore the cemetery.

Since September, vandals have knocked down the fences of the cemetery at St. John's African Methodist Church, bent the wrought-iron gate, painted the walkway leading to the cemetery and graffiti gravestones.

The church has started filling out an application to receive money from the Delaware Distressed Cemetery Fund, but Hackett needs restoration estimates from three separate vendors.

This process was “like pulling teeth,” he said.

In the meantime, Hackett has launched a GoFundMe to raise money for the repairs. The church’s initial goal is to raise $ 20,000, but once Hackett receives more concrete estimates, he said he will update the fundraiser.

“It has been an ongoing thing, but we are not discouraged,” the pastor said. “If they mess it up, we’ll keep cleaning it up. We won’t stop.”

Fundraising can be accessed at gofund.me/e82fedd7.

Do you have a tip or a story idea? Email Isabel Hughes at [email protected] For all the latest news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_

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