DOVER — The 14 or so individuals who are buried in an unmarked vacant lot off the south side of Sharon Hill Road, just east of Cahoon Branch Road, might still be gone — but they are no longer forgotten.
That’s because the Delaware Public Archives unveiled a historical marker at the location of a former church and graveyard Friday morning, pulling the cover off a lasting tribute at the site of Carlisle African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dover.
The Rev. Dr. Erika Crawford, pastor of Mount Zion AME Church in downtown Dover, said it was nice that the owners of the property, John and Dr. Kimberly Gaines, and the state made sure that history was preserved at the site.
“Thank you to all of you who helped us preserve our great history and the labor of love that was rendered here at Carlisle AME Church,” the Rev. Crawford said. “We’re just excited to be a part of this. With three AME churches still in Dover, we’re glad that we’re able to add this to our archives, and we are most grateful for all of you who have invited us to be a part of remembering our history.
“So we know, from this point forward, that these lives will never be forgotten. They’ll never be glossed over, and they’ll always be engraved, not only in this lot, but in our hearts and in our archives.”
Carlisle AME had almost become a part of local folklore, as relatives of those buried at the church had long remembered there was such a place and had been in search of its location. The church and cemetery were once the focal point of a free African American community.
Known family surnames within the community were Allston, Carlisle, Collins, Dickson, Downes, Driggus, Fisher, Fullman, Hawkins, Hovington, Johns, Robinson, Ross, Scott, Simmons and White. Some are believed to have been involved in the infancy of Delaware State University.
Nobody would have known anything about the history of the area without the Gaineses making plans for expanding their Forrest Avenue Animal Hospital.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because we were planning on building a new animal hospital, and that’s when we found everything (regarding the property’s history), so it shut us down really quickly, and we were like, ‘Oh boy, what do we do?’” said Dr. Gaines. “But in the end, it’s a blessing and quite the honor to be able to be a part of this.
“When we purchased the property, the deed restrictions (showed) that there was a church here. But it was so small that we didn’t realize there was also a cemetery here, as well.”
The Gaineses contacted Salisbury, Maryland-based Edward Otter Inc. in July 2019 to take a look at their property.
Archaeological and archival studies performed by Dr. Otter determined that the quarter-acre slice of land off Sharon Hill Road was the former location of Carlisle AME Church and Cemetery. Though the anthropologist found 14 gravesites on the lot, the full extent of burials is unknown and may extend beyond the current property lines.
Dr. Otter found that the land had been deeded from Capril and Leah Carlisle to African Episcopal Church trustees in 1849 for the purpose of erecting a place of worship. A certificate of incorporation was issued to church trustees in 1921. The church building was abandoned some time after 1937, but the cemetery was active through at least 1944.
It is recommended that Carlisle AME Church and Cemetery continue to be used as green space, to honor those buried in unmarked graves at the site.
The cemetery is currently covered in turf, with a large, aged, deciduous tree near the roadway.
“The Gaines family has taken great care in protecting and maintaining the property since they acquired it in 2010,” Dr. Otter said. “This location is historically significant for a number of reasons.”
That’s why officials with the Delaware Public Archives felt it would be the perfect place for the 685th historical marker it has placed throughout the state since the inception of the marker program in 1931.
Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, joined about a dozen others for Friday’s roadside ceremony, which also included former Delaware State University President Dr. Wilma Mishoe and Doris Cooper, a descendant of a couple who buried a stillborn baby at the cemetery.
“It’s sad in a way that this was covered up,” Sen. Paradee said. “Most likely, someone intentionally removed the gravestones and tried to make this go away.
“But it’s also wonderful that Kim (Gaines) and her husband stepped forward and did the work and identified what was here, and so today, we are able to honor the people who are buried here and honor the history. It’s a good day. It’s a day to celebrate.”