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Honoring Generations of Veterans

It started simply, as a community service project to earn hours towards an honor society qualification.  Northley Middle School student Thomas Lafferty III was in seventh grade and was hoping he’d qualify to be a member of his National Junior Honor Society school chapter.  Built on multiple pillars, students must meet specific criteria including scholarship, service, leadership, character and citizenship.  

Inspired by multiple members of his family who served in Vietnam, Thomas was drawn to Friends of Green Lawn Cemetery on Concord Road and their plans to restore and preserve the historic African American Cemetery, a final resting place of veterans, many of whom served as far back as World War I.  

Ten volunteer hours turned to dozens, and what was originally an effort to qualify for an honor society back in February, has instead brought honor to the more than 1,000 souls buried there.

Green Lawn Cemetery was founded in 1907 to meet the need for a final resting place for African American veterans who had been excluded from burial within the City of Chester.  After years of neglect and abandonment, absence of historical and legal documentation, a group of volunteers joined together to restore and preserve the cemetery.  Thomas Lafferty III became one of them. 

In a speech at the annual Veterans Lunch at the American Legion Post 926 in Aston last month, State Representative Leanne Krueger honored the volunteers, including Thomas, noting their continuing effort to unveil the graves.

“Two hundred and thirty veterans were identified and located out of the 1,200 grave sites, and their name, branch of service, rank, dates of service, and service during a war were recorded,” she explained.

“So far, a Civil War Veteran and four Buffalo Soldiers were found along with many who served in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. For far too long these burial grounds were overlooked. Documenting these sites is not only about preserving Black history, but also preserving American history.”

Thomas felt drawn to the mission, and instead of walking away from the project, was determined to see it through.

“After I got my first ten hours and didn’t get into the society, I just kept doing it because it needed to be done,” he said.  “It made me feel really good because so many people could be uncovered and seen now.”

Thomas concentrated on section 3 of the cemetery, weed whacking, mowing, clearing off stones, whatever he was asked to contribute.  Thomas has even volunteered to take photos of each headstone to document them on cards to be entered into a database for the cemetery.  

“Some of them go back to 1870 and some as recent as 2009,” he said. 

Thomas believes he has helped increase interest in recovering the graves as more people have been inspired by his efforts.

“They think if a 13-year-old kid can do it then I should do it.  So, we’ve been seeing more and more volunteers showing up to clean up and help.”

Now an 8th grader, Thomas has no plans to give up his service any time soon.  While he appreciates the attention he recently received for his efforts, he feels that the mission is far from complete.

“I try and get there almost every Saturday,” he said.  “It feels incomplete because so much more has to be done.  There are still active services and it isn’t done and it just has to be done.”

Representative Krueger will be attending the third annual Veterans Tribute on November 11that the Green Lawn Cemetery.

“Even after Thomas received the notice that he was not selected for the National Junior Honor Society, it did not waiver his commitment to document the rich history that lies within Green Lawn Cemetery and to honor those who have gone before us,” she said.

“I look forward to visiting some of the graves that Thomas uncovered.”