When restoration efforts began at the Shelby City African American Cemetery near Junction City three years ago, only eight names among those buried there were known.
Now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of Eastern Kentucky University and Centre College students, along with a handful of community volunteers, 178 burials with names have been confirmed with either death certificates or etched headstones. Many were slaves of local landowners. And the work continues.
On Saturday, Oct. 29, approximately 70 students from EKU and Centre, along with four other volunteers, worked several hours at the historic site. They spent much of the time leveling almost the entire back property line, which had been bulldozed in the 1980s. What had been a two- to three-foot pile of debris is now nearly leveled for the purposes of erecting a fence. Larger pieces of debris, including chimney parts, large car parts and tires, were moved toward the front of the cemetery so they could be loaded onto a truck and hauled to a local landfill. More grave shafts were cleared of broken glass and trash, and downed trees were removed and burned.
“A group this large can do more work in one morning than our regular group of four or five volunteers can do in several months,” said Cindy Peck, Central Region director for EKU, who has played a leading role since the EKU-Danville Genealogy Club adopted the three-acre property as a community service project in 2013. “It is great seeing so many young people working in teams and accomplishing so much together. Seeing mounds of trash – which we have been working on for most of the last year – disappear in a matter of hours is very humbling.”
Students also found several “significant pieces of remembrances” left at the graves to memorialize departed loved ones. The most striking example, Peck noted, is a Depression-era wine glass, “a good example of an item that family members might have intentionally broken at the grave site to sever the deceased’s earthly ties and to urge the spirit of the deceased to move on to its heavenly life.”
During earlier work at the cemetery, students and other volunteers, aided by ground-penetrating radar services donated by Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., revealed numerous historic treasures. One gravestone represented Ed Gaines, father of Harlem Hellfighter Wallace Gaines, a member of the celebrated all-black Army infantry regiment from New York that saw action in World Wars I and II. Another stone belonged to James Cohen, who died when he stepped on a land mine in Sicily while serving in World War II. More recently, workers replaced the broken military headstone of Jordan Wallace, who had served as a soldier in the “U.S. Colored Troops” in the Civil War. “His original headstone has been broken by loggers in the cemetery,” Peck noted. “It is stunningly beautiful – white polished marble. “
A special dedication ceremony for Wallace’s descendants is scheduled for May 2017, Peck said, adding that several of his great-great-grandsons and great-great-granddaughters from Lincoln County, Cincinnati and Indianapolis plan to attend.
The death certificates for the cemetery stretch only from 1911 – when they were first required in Kentucky – to 1961, the date of the last known burial. “So the number of 178 is the result of only 50 years of printed records,” Peck said. “We estimate there are between 700 and 800 burials in the entire cemetery. We have begun to mark grave shafts that have only fieldstone markers with pipes.”
Next up: a “historically accurate” fence to protect the boundaries of the site and prevent further desecration.
“We are still researching the families buried here as well,” Peck said.
The Shelby City Cemetery project received a $10,000 Regional Stewardship Grant from EKU in 2014.
In its continuing effort to commemorate and preserve the past, the community group is already researching two other cemeteries that it hopes to restore.
“There are still hundreds of similar cemeteries across the state that are disintegrating in overgrown areas,” Peck said. “The history of these forgotten places is important to our collective American history.”
Anyone wishing to assist with the projects in any way should contact Peck at firstname.lastname@example.org or 859-236-6866 or 859-622-6736.