Bucks County Quakers honor ‘forgotten slaves’ buried in unmarked graves

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Quakers and community members gathered Saturday afternoon at Middletown Friends Meeting at Langhorne for a memorial service honoring an unknown number of “forgotten slaves” buried on the meeting house grounds in unmarked graves dating back to 1693.

Black residents of the Bucks County town long suspected that there were enslaved and freed Africans and African-Americans buried on the property, said Brenda Cowan, 63, a member of the ceremony’s planning committee.

Cowan is a lifelong Langhorne resident, and has witnessed the community’s racial highs and lows over the decades. Today, she said, things are tense.

“Amongst the residents here,” Cowan said, “there’s splitting because of politics, because of religion, splitting because of a lot of different things. It’s not good.”

To finally honor the deceased ancestors, before a crowd of roughly 100 black and white people was a bright spot in a dark time for Cowan.

“This is so uplifting and a lot of the community came out,” she said. “So hopefully they’ll take that back home and rejoice.”

Holly Olson, a member of Middletown Friends, helped organize the memorial service in honor of the 335th anniversary of the meeting house. Olson was inspired by similar events at Upper Dublin Friends Meeting in 2013.

With the help of the African American Museum of Bucks County and local historian Jesse Crooks, Olson was able to confirm the burials by examining Quaker documents kept at Swarthmore College’s Friends Historical Library.

While Quakers were known for being part of the abolitionist movement, they too owned slaves. Some of the people buried at Middletown Friends were slaves owned by members of the meeting house.

All but one of the dead remain unidentified.

Cato Adams was buried in an unmarked grave in 1812. Crooks, who made the discovery, suspects that Adams was born a slave, but was later freed, and also attended Middletown Monthly Meeting, as the community was known.

During Saturday’s service, the community gathered to memorialize Adams and the other people buried with him with a worship service featuring performances by the Lincoln University Concert Choir and the reading of manumissions — documents that granted freedom to the enslaved people owned by the Quakers.

A memorial stone commemorating the forgotten slaves buried at Middletown Friends Meeting at Langhorne, Pa. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Middletown Friends also put out memorial plaques so passersby can recognize the hallowed ground.

“We wanted the town of Langhorne to be able to see that there are slaves here,” Olson said. “There are slaves all over Langhorne that are buried. All over Bucks County, too, but people don’t know about it.”

One of the plaques was written by Cowan “in remembrance of the forgotten slaves.”

“We now stand as witnesses to their existence as enslaved people,” it reads. “We acknowledge that they lived and did not die in vain.”

In light of divisive times in her community, Cowan said she hopes the lasting impact of Saturday’s ceremony will be “a joyous one, an uplifting one, from what we’ve been living with today.”

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