Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Save Our Graves Foundation Founder Myrtis Johnson

Save Our Graves Foundation, Founder Myrtis Johnson
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 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.”

Source: The Louisiana Weekly/By J. Kojo Livington, Contributing Writer