Restoring Dignity to Fraternal Memorial Park's Residents

Restoring Dignity to Fraternal Memorial Park's Residents

From Shaun Jedju

HCWVCPA is raising funds for a monument to restore dignity to the residents of Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery (Originally founded in 1928 as a place to bury African Americans, the cemetery fell into major disrepair)

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    The following was originally published in the Exponent Telegram February 24th 2019

    Anmoore, WV Cemetery Study Sheds Light on Black History, Harrison County History

    There are at least seven World War I veterans and at least one World War II veteran laid to rest in a small cemetery in Anmoore that you would likely drive past without noticing if you did not know where to look.

    In fact, among the trees that have sprouted up over years of neglect is the final resting place of at least 182 men and women who died in Harrison County between 1928 and 1978. In addition to veterans, they were coal miners, farmers, builders, housekeepers, mothers and children.

    All but two of those known to be buried in the cemetery were black.

    While some in the community have known of the cemetery’s existence and some of the people buried there, many of the names and stories of those interred have been lost to time and poor record-keeping.

    Local cemetery inventories drafted in the 1920s and 1940s make no mention of the Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery, according to Crystal Wimer, executive director of the Harrison County Historical Society.

    “All these other little cemeteries are in there,” she said. “The only rationale that I can explain for why (the Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery) was overlooked is racism.”

    Even courthouse records for African-Americans can be incomplete, according to David Houchin, special collections librarian at the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library.

    “The standard records that were created for African-Americans in American courthouses tend to be poorer records — more errors creep in, there’s more carelessness in the creation of those records,” Houchin said.

    Wimer said restoration of those records and cemeteries matters to history and humanity.

    “It’s important because those people matter. Their stories matter. There’s a history in their lives that could give us a glimpse into the story of people of color in Harrison County,” she said.

    To help piece together these stories of Harrison County and its black community, a study of the people buried in the Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery was commissioned by XTO Energy.

    XTO previously owned the cemetery property, but turned it over to the Historic Clarksburg, WV, Cemetery Preservation Alliance after gravesites were discovered. Since then, XTO, the alliance, the historical society and other individuals and community organizations have partnered to preserve the cemetery and document the people buried there.

    “These death records and these cemeteries give us a picture of what the community was then, the makeup, who was here and what they were doing,” Wimer said.

    Beyond that, the records and cemeteries can provide individuals living today with a sense of identity.

    Franklin Hairston, a Harrison County pastor and Black Heritage Festival board member, said he knows firsthand the impact of poorly documented histories.

    Unlike white Americans, who can often trace their lineage back to the time their family arrived in the United States and beyond, Hairston said he kept hitting roadblocks when he tried researching his family tree. In many cases, the information on a family member just simply was not there, he said.

    “It hinders a person really discovering their roots or tracing back their ancestry,” Hairston said. “It can bring up feelings of a mistaken identity or a false identity. … Who am I? Am I just the great-grandchild of a slave? Who are these people? What were they like? Where did they come from? We’re stuck with these questions.”

    The study commissioned by XTO Energy, along with years of prior research by historians Nanci Kotowski and Houchin, has served to fill in some of the missing pieces from the lives of the men and women buried in the Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery.

    For example, Irwin Jacobs was the first person known to be interred in the cemetery, according to Houchin.

    Compared to some others buried there, a lot is known about Jacobs. He died on Nov. 17, 1928. His death certificate states he was 70 years old when he passed away from bronchopneumonia.

    An obituary provided by Houchin provides even more insight into both Jacobs’ life and the community he lived in.

    He was born into slavery in Virginia in 1858, 10 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves freed.

    Jacobs is one of two men buried in the cemetery who are known to have been born into slavery, according to the study.

    Jacobs came to West Virginia as a young man, settled in “Elk district” in Harrison County and earned a living farming a small piece of land he had purchased.

    “He was the only colored man living in that section of the county,” the obituary states. “Reminiscences of slave life in Virginia and the traditions he had acquired there were uppermost in his conversation and were a source of delight to the youngsters of his community.”

    Jacobs’ wife, Flora, is also buried in the cemetery. A housewife, she died a little more than 17 years after her husband, according to the study.

    Also buried in the Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery are Raymond Henry Booker, Clarence Collins, James Robert Hicks, Cecil Howard, Leonard K. Perry, Wren Ranson and Sam P. Smith Jr. — all known to be veterans of World War I.

    Draft cards were found for an additional five men buried in the cemetery, but it could not be confirmed whether they served in wartime.

    Also buried in the cemetery is Clarence David Smith, who was likely a veteran of World War II, according to the study.

    Some of these veterans’ graves in the cemetery do not have headstones.

    Many of the people buried in the cemetery were industrial migrants who came from the South to work in the West Virginia coalfields.

    The last person known to be buried in the Fraternal Memorial Park Cemetery was Lelia Freeman. She was buried next to her husband, who died in 1935.

    The Cemetery Preservation Alliance is working to preserve the cemetery and document the people buried there. The organization, with funding from XTO, is also in the process of planning a memorial at the site that would list the names of all 182 people buried there, according to Shaun Jedju, director of the alliance.

    Hairston said that even if all the pieces of the past cannot be found, exploring your heritage is still worthwhile.

    “As far as tracing your heritage, a lot of information can be found in your cemetery. We’re talking about not just one or two generations, but three or four generations. It becomes a great conversational piece,” he said.

    Sometimes, simply knowing a name can spark conversations that lead members of an older generation to pass down their oral histories, he said.

    It can also spark a memory of a letter, newspaper clipping, memoir or other keepsakes, he said.

    Perhaps more than anything, Hairston said, history can serve as a warning.

    “We shouldn’t be discouraged or disappointed by the lack of records that were kept yesterday,” he said. “But what we should do today is be mindful, because a history that is ignored is most likely to repeat itself. We cannot afford to take our history lightly.”

    There is a special purpose in remembering the contributions of all black Americans through the years, he said.

    “That was one of the reasons why Carter G. Woodson (an early scholar of black history)… knew it was a must to connect young black children to their history, so they wouldn’t grow up with a case of mistaken identity,” Hairston said. “That they would have a sense of purpose and a sense of pride about who they were, because we don’t get that through ancestral recognition.”

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