Friday, November 8, 2013

Preserving and Maintaining Our Cemeteries in St. Helena & Tangipahoa Parishes, Louisiana

Rocky Hill Cemetery
It's has been over ten years ago since my son Bernard, my friend Ilona Lyttle and I recorded nine African American cemeteries in Tangipahoa and St. Helena Parishes. When I was a small child—my mother would take me and my brothers to Big Zion cemetery in Roseland, Louisiana were my maternal grandparents and other family members are buried. She white wash the graves and talk to us about maintaining the family cemeteries and graves of our ancestors. “ You should always keep the grass cut and graves white washed, “ said my mother. She always found a way to share the story about the headstones my grandfather Jasper made for his parents and siblings. She said she watched her father make them. My grandfather’s pride led him to make headstones for his deceased family members. Looking at the inscriptions on the headstones that he made over fifty-years ago is an historical part of my families’ genealogical research. 

I often wondered why are so many African-American cemeteries are being abandoned, neglected or without headstones!  In the early church history—some of the deacons of the church would maintain the church cemetery.  Taking care of the cemetery were part of the churches agenda. Insufficient funds or lack of a policy to maintain and manage the cemetery could be some of reasons that many African American cemeteries are abandoned and neglected. 

It should be our primary goal and objective to educated the community, church members and young people about the importance of maintaining the cemetery. These cemeteries hold special memories of our deceased family members. When cemeteries are neglected or just allowed to deteriorate, we all should be embarrassed. We stand a chance of losing important historical genealogical information that can be vital to our family history research. Not to mention dishonoring our deceased loved ones who have passed away.
Headstone made by Walter C. Black, Sr.

Several years ago, I purchased two headstones for my grandparents, because the thought of having them in a grave without headstones greatly disturbed me. I found that several others of my deceased family members didn’t have headstones. So I did what my maternal grandfather Jasper Harrell, Sr., did— I asked my colleague Walter C. Black, Sr., to make them.

These cemeteries contain the remains of WWII Veterans, church and community leaders, newly freed slaves, family members, and in some cases United States Colored Troops.  Last summer I met a woman named Myrtle Johnson who organized a non-profit organization to help preserve some of the cemeteries in St. Helena Parish. She took me too a slave cemeteries in St. Helena, Louisiana.  There are so many cemeteries and graves that are hidden in the woods, “ Johnson said. We need to notify the family members and community about the neglected cemeteries, Johnson said. “ These cemeteries are a big part of our history and they are our deceased love one.  Please volunteer your time to help maintain the family or church cemetery.
Myrtis Johnson unearthing slave cemeteries in St. Helena Parish