This weekend I had the privilege to participate in a special project near Marshall, Texas - the effort to maintain an old slave and African-American burial ground, Love Cemetery. Brought to national attention through a book and an ongoing documentary by Texan, now California-based, China Galland, the the "keepers of Love" continue to struggle to gain access to the grounds for visits and upkeep.
A community cleaning and memorial is held every spring and fall and I joined them this first weekend of April. The grounds tend to be quickly overgrown with weeds and an invasive wisteria that was planted years ago; the job requires strong, energetic people and for that the young men of the East Texas Baptist University football team generously gave of their time for the cleanup efforts.
As much as the grounds appear to need more work, the Keepers of Love had made headways into the clearing of the brush over several years and have re-discovered many graves. Often times only the elders could identify the markers on the grave which in the past could have included items that were significant to the person buried, like sewing machines, pots with certain types of plants, jars, plowing items, and even stones. To keep the graves easily identifiable among the overgrown weeds someone donated tall iron crosses that are now placed in each new grave discovered.
The Keepers of Love, such as Ms. Doris Vittatoe and Ms. Nuthel Britton, are in their 80's and in fragile health, so they need help to ensure that this slave burial ground in Texas is not forgotten to history and to the woods in private mining and hunting lands. Besides China Galland, others traveling from near and far to join the effort included descendants of Della Love, African-American landowner who donated the land for the cemetery, Estrus Tucker, activist and speaker with roots in Harrison County, Archie Rison, community genealogist and cemetery activist of Nacogdoches, and a special visit by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, composer, author, singer, and community builder.
The cleanup and memorial day included several special moments including the marking of a new found grave, a family finding and their ancestor's grave (Ms. Lizzie Sparks), and Wiley College Choir students finally finding the cemetery after being lost three hours and walking the 1.5 mile road into the cemetery because their cars were too low for the treacherous road! A storm and cold front had blown in the day before, so another heart- and stomach-warming moment was Ms. Doris and her brother, Mr. Jefferson, firing up a grill to serve hot dogs and homemade cupcakes. The day ended with celebratory singing at the chapel of the Scottsville Nazarene Camp.
Again, I'll repeat how privileged I was to join this inspiring community of people and hope to support their efforts. There are plenty of elements of folklife in the preservation of burial grounds which can be quite life-affirming - family gatherings, food, music, and even the creative, vernacular markings of graves. To help or learn more about the effort visit the Resurecting Love website.