CHESTER -- Chester leaders hope to make cleaning up Mount Hebron Cemetery an annual event.
Last week, about 40 people came to a community cleanup day at the historically black cemetery, which dates to the mid- to late 1800s and sits behind the historically white Evergreen Cemetery on Cemetery Street. Though the properties merged in 1979, burials at the two cemeteries remained racially segregated.
The volunteer effort, which took place on the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., drew criticism from some members of the Mount Hebron AME Zion Church. They contend that the city annexed the property, so it should maintain the cemetery.
But city leaders say that's not the case. Although the city did annex the property in 2005 at the request of church trustees, the church still owns the property. Therefore, leaders said, the city is not responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery.
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As an alternative, three members of the Chester City Council, including Mayor Mitch Foster, support a once-a-year volunteer cleanup day.
"We probably need to do a yearly effort to keep it down," Councilwoman Annie Reid said.
Before the Jan. 21 event, the cemetery stood amid brush and thorns. Beer cans, fast-food cups and other garbage were scattered across the ground.
Although progress was made last week, Foster said the city is planning another cleanup day in coming weeks to finish cutting down the brush. He said Chester County Councilman Alex Oliphant has volunteered to spray the cemetery with weed killer to keep the weeds down.
"If we spray it and get it at the right time -- you know, early spring -- that'll knock it down for about five years," Foster said. "Ideally, what you need is to go in there with a backhoe and get all these stumps out of the ground so that they won't sprout twigs again. Because so many of the ones that we cut on Monday have actually been cut before."
But, he said, that scenario ushers in a new set of problems, such as finding someone with a backhoe who is willing to volunteer time and equipment. There are also concerns about getting the work done without damaging tombstones.
City Councilwoman Linda Tinker said she'll support an annual cleanup day around this time of year.
"That'd be wonderful," she said. "It'll keep the community involved to celebrate the Martin Luther King holiday to keep his dream alive," she said. "If we have a designated day, we won't let it get ahead of us again for the 15th time."
Reid echoed those thoughts.
"If we're going to do it, we just need to make it an ongoing effort," she said. "We need more than one day to do it."
Robert Wilson, a member of Mount Hebron and the main critic of the city's treatment of the cemetery, could not be reached for comment.