Newtown Looking Historic

Cemetery On Track For National, State Landmark Registers

Posted: October 15, 2013

Karen Thomas (right), president of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, and Emmitt Lee, chairman of Newtown Cemetery’s board of trustees, walk through the cemetery on Monday. The pair have been working to get the cemetery on the state and national registers of historic places. (Photo by Nikki Fox)
Emmitt Lee, chairman of Newtown Cemetery’s board of trustees, straightens flowers on Lucy Simms’ grave at the cemetery Monday. An application to place the cemetery on national and state historic landmark registers recently passed an evaluation team’s review.
HARRISONBURG — With every visit to Newtown Cemetery, Karen Thomas marvels in its past and gets excited about its future.

One moment she may be on the lookout for a marker of one of the roughly 600 people buried at the Hill Street property, unsure of the exact spot, but eager to take in all of the unfamiliar names along the way.

The next, she is picturing restored grave markers inside of a gated entryway, a form of protection that has long been missing for the property.

“It’s a beautiful cemetery,” said Thomas, president of the city’s Northeast Neighborhood Association.

And the organization is on track to enhance the look even more. Last week, Thomas learned from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources that her group’s application to place the cemetery on the national and state historic landmark registers passed a state evaluation team’s review.

Although that’s only the first step, it’s a significant one.

In December, the state review board will review the application and should give it a “green light” to move forward to the next step, which is the nomination for the state and national registers, said Joannie Evans, an architectural historian in the department’s Stephens City office.

“A fair amount do not get past the evaluation team,” she said. “But once they are recommended eligible ... the state review board usually approves them. I’ve not seen them turn one down that has been recommended by our department in the 15 years I’ve been here.”

The cemetery was established in 1868 as a graveyard for black residents of Newtown, an early settlement for freed slaves. The Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Historical Society, though, actually documents people buried there as early as 1835, Thomas said.

The site’s placement on the state and national historic registers would help the association when it seeks grant funding for projects to beautify the cemetery, she said. A historically recognized cemetery will also “enhance the beauty of the Northeast neighborhood,” Thomas adds.

The association recently took on the preservation and enhancement of the cemetery as a project, partnering with the cemetery’s board of trustees.

“We’re trying to move this thing forward,” said Emmitt Lee, the board’s chairman. “So many people come through here. They drink beer. ... No one should be here after certain hours, or even driving through the cemetery.”

Restoring cracked stones, adding gates and paving a road that runs from Hill to Sterling streets through the cemetery are on the list of projects the association is raising money for.

Late last year, three residents donated money for a marker along Hill Street, solving one issue that trustees had often mentioned — namely, that people had no idea where to find Newtown Cemetery.

If the national and state historic registers are in its future, the cemetery will answer another issue — informing people who have no idea what it is.

“For tourism, it’s a good thing,” Thomas said. “People come and tour and see the historic site. ... I’m hoping for the best.”

 Want To Help?

To donate to the Northeast Neighborhood Association’s effort to clean up Newtown Cemetery, make checks payable to the association and send them to P.O. Box 1026, Harrisonburg, VA, 22803.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or

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