Foundation digs up buried history
6th May 2013 · 0 Comments
By J. Kojo Livingston
Much of Black history is buried in forgotten and abandoned cemeteries throughout the nation. A growing number of people are becoming interested in restoring those cemeteries and reclaiming that history. Louisiana is part of that trend with groups like the Star Cemetery Preservation Society in Shreveport and the Save Our Graves Foundation in St. Helena Parish.
The Save Our Graves founder was is from Liverpool, St. Helena Parish. She graduated from St Helena high school in 1964. She completed two years at Southern University, married and had two sons and a daughter. She worked for 25 years at BASF supplying retail stores for documenting is familiar to her.
The La. Weekly interviewed her at a hidden cemetery in a heavily wooded area of St. Helena. “I started in 2002 with the cemeteries doing the genealogy on my father’s side and I saw how their cemetery looked and it was really, really bad. So I said I’m going to try to find some help. She ran into the warden at the Greensburg jail who assigned some inmates to go and clean it out. “He also gave me some information about a slave cemetery off of Hwy 38. We ended up identifying 82 slave burial sites. We marked them with stones donated from the Gemstone Company in Baton Rouge.”
It was then that Johnson started the Save Our Graves Foundation. Asked why saving graves is important, Johnson answered, “It has a lot of value. I want to preserve this history for our descendants. I’m finding out that more and more African Americans want to know more about where they came from and they are doing their genealogy.”
According to Johnson cemeteries are critical to genealogical research, “One of the first places the genealogist will tell you to go is to the cemeteries because there is a lot of information on the headstones. Start with when they were born then you can proceed to do other research. I found that Louisiana had the largest importation of slaves in America and that St. Helena was next to New Orleans in slave importation. There are many, many slave cemeteries that can still be located and preserved. It’s a matter of going out there and looking and by talking to people. By letting people know what I’m doing, I’m getting a lot of feedback from a lot of people. In fact most of the people that I speak to can point me to an abandoned cemetery. One story leads to another.”
Johnson has a lot of work to do on this site. “It’s known as the Wright Cemetery and also as the Henderson Cemetery, for the families buried there. My plan is to locate, restore, clean, preserve, map and record the information that I find and to place that information in the library in Greensburg.”
The condition of the cemetery had a visible impact on Johnson, “It breaks my heart, to know that our ancestors are almost out of sight and out of mind. It’s a terrible thing that makes me more determined to restore these sites. I am also hopeful that by them being slave cemeteries and the time period dates on here put me on a timeline where they can be put on the National Historic Register.”
Genealogist Antoinette Harrell has been working with Johnson, providing technical assistance and tips. She also was concerned about cemetery. “I feel sadness. I’m thankful to Ms. Johnson for taking the initiative to reclaim parts of our story. One headstone said that the person was born in 1866 and they died. It’s almost as if they are forgotten and if we forget them we forget their contribution to our history.”
Harrell echoed the importance of sites like these, “We will be forgotten the same way if we don’t teach our children to appreciate the history and to take care of the cemeteries. We should not have this many abandoned cemeteries in our community. It not just here, we can go back to Hope Cemetery in New Orleans and so many others. Once we put them in the ground, we forget them. We are forgetting the legacies the lessons they have taught us and the things they have done for us. This kind of neglect is also a sign of what we neglect in real life. We are neglecting the teachings of grandmothers and grandfathers and great aunts and great uncles and that’s why we are in the condition we are in today because we are neglecting those life-long lessons. We should not bury those legacies with our loved ones. We should come out here and maintain the cemeteries and make sure it does not look like this.”
Johnson is excited about the history she is uncovering. “I am running across abandoned cemeteries and finding the beginning of the people who imported slaves in St Helena Parish. Everything is coming together, it authenticates what I do. And when I bring this together, it’s a tremendous work that could benefit so many people.”
The group needs volunteers to work the sites and funds to purchase plaques and markers for graves. Schools and civic groups are encouraged to participate. A small team of even five people can accomplish a great deal in a few hours. Persons interested in volunteering or making donations can contact Myrtis Johnson at (225) 357-4549. donations can be made after sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and the group does have a Facebook page under its name.
This article originally published in the May 6, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.