While in Pennsylvania to bury my grandmother in April, we (my parents and I) took a few minutes to wander the small Quaker cemetery at Richland Friends. The woman who had greeted us had mentioned a small African American cemetery attached to the property, which we found strange; even stranger to note that most of the graves in it dated from well into the twentieth century, when one would not expect to find a segregated cemetery in Pennsylvania (especially one run by the Quakers).
The cemetery was one where hints of stories reached out for you: the few stones with birth dates that predated emancipation, suggesting possible former slaves; the veterans of segregated World War I and World War II units; the small, crumbling markers that would be gone in a decade. One in particular stood out, though only after my mother mentioned it: a larger stone containing seven names, and dates that showed only children – six who died in 1965, one more who died in 1967.
“There must be a horrible story there,” she said, looking down at the grave. And she was right: some research turned up a newspaper story from the Bristol Courier and Levittown Times that explained the events of November 30, 1965 that changed the Allen family forever and led to this stark headstone.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear the Allens were a struggling family. They lived in what was described as a rickety wooden home, and were forced to heat it with small and unsafe space heaters. The family was already large with Chester Allen Sr., his wife Emma, and their five children – 9 year old Chester Jr., 17 year old Bonnie, twelve year old Alonzo, eleven year old David, and the toddler, Eric, just one and a half. Despite their family’s size, they had taken in foster children: The Joneses, Robin, Penny, Rodney and Jack, all between two and eight.
With heating dependent on oil space heaters, Chester Sr. went out that night to buy oil, leaving the children in the house on his quick trip. When he returned, though, the house was in flames. Chester Jr. arrived to find the house in flames as well, and rushed in to try and pull his siblings out. His mother did too, only to catch fire; Chester Jr. put out the flames on her clothes, and she went back into the house in time to save Alonzo. The six youngest children, however, died in the fire that night. Fire officials recalled her screams to them as they arrived on scene.
The story was reprinted by the Associated Press in papers around the country – a tale of human misery to fill column inches. Two weeks later, Bucks County Fire Marshal Fred Hibbs called for a county-wide review of the living conditions among foster children. The Jones family children were not the only kids in foster care to die in Bucks that fall due to fires.
That’s as far as Google has taken me on this story, and perhaps it’s all there is. It’s a reminder that while cemeteries are often peaceful, contemplative community spaces, they are also places of great human pain and mourning, with desperate tragedy spelled out only in names and dates.