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Effort to reclaim graves of black residents brings a community together

 

Caledonia resident Martha Jo Mims leans down to read the inscription on a grave at Vaughn’s Cemetery Friday afternoon. The grave, belonging to Virginia D. Black, is one of many being reclaimed and preserved in the black section of the 150-year-old cemetery.

Caledonia resident Martha Jo Mims leans down to read the inscription on a grave at Vaughn’s Cemetery Friday afternoon. The grave, belonging to Virginia D. Black, is one of many being reclaimed and preserved in the black section of the 150-year-old cemetery. Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson/Dispatch Staff  Buy this photo.

 

Carmen K. Sisson

 

It is late evening in Vaughn's Cemetery, and the shadows are beginning to creep across the graves, slowly enveloping both simple and ornate without prejudice.  

 

Martha Jo Mims, 70, leans down to brush dirt from a moss-covered, concrete cross, trying to read words that were scratched into the surface more than 60 years ago. As she steps back, the previously indecipherable marks take shape: "Virginia D. Black. At Rest." 

 

"Sometimes we have to have distance before we can appreciate something for what it tells us, " she says, drawing her jacket close against the chill February wind.  

 

This rural cemetery, located in Caledonia on Wright Road, has whispered its mysteries to Mims since she was a child.  

 

She grew up decorating the graves of relatives with her mother and grandmother, just as they did with their mothers and grandmothers. Her husband, Howell Galey Mims, rests here, as does six generations of her family. Someday, she knows, she will join them. 

 

But about a decade ago, something began troubling her, something that was troubling many people, as it turns out. Just beyond the well-manicured grounds, beyond the crumbling fence and extending into the boggy undergrowth, there lay more graves -- those of slaves, former slaves and other black residents who were buried in a time when segregated cemeteries were commonplace, reflecting the stark division between the races.  

 

As in life, so in death. 

 

Around 2000, she and an army of volunteers set about reclaiming this forgotten portion of earth. It was a time when historic preservation was on the rise, and many were feeling the pinpricks of conscience urging them to move forward.  

 

"Most people wondered why we hadn't done it sooner, but it takes somebody to take that first step," Mims says, walking carefully amid the sunken spots demarcating graves that have not yet been identified and freed from the tangled thicket that threatens to obscure even last traces of forgotten lives. 

 

Mims, who spearheaded the cleanup efforts, found a willing partner in Lardell Shaw, who helped her involve the black community in the restoration. Members of Anderson Grove Missionary Baptist Church and Military Chapel Missionary Baptist Church were instrumental in the project, she says.  

 

They gathered funeral home records and tried to identify graves. They used epoxy to repair headstones cracked by time or storms. They hacked away at the undergrowth and shored up those stones that were leaning or about to fall.  

 

Mims marvels at all they have accomplished in the past decade. The entrance is landscaped and welcomes visitors from dawn to dusk. Vaughn's has been recognized as a Blue Star Memorial By-Way honoring the many veterans who are buried on both sides.  

 

In 2011, when the cemetery board learned that another historic site was being threatened -- the 1850 Whitfield family plot on Bluecutt Road -- they moved it, brick by brick, to their own cemetery. Heavy equipment transferred the remains, and volunteers meticulously measured the widths of the brick walkway, the height and length of the brick walls, the distances between each grave, even the distances from the graves to the walls, restoring it as close to its original appearance as possible. 

 

Mims stops to talk with two women who have come to visit a niece who died in a car accident. She knows the stories behind most of the etched names. Her great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Vaughn, deeded 5.56 acres of land to establish this cemetery in 1833. What hasn't been passed down in oral tradition, she has researched on her own.  

 

"I'm proud that this community of both races has brought us to this point, and look what we've done," she says, gesturing across the sweeping landscape. "So many people have worked together, and to me, it makes a very positive statement about renewing our heritage and ensuring that our history is preserved long after we are gone." 

 

She estimates around 500 people are buried in each of the sections, but she knows not all graves will be found. There are still about 10 yards of land on three sides that needs to be cleared, and people are still being buried here, though the last burial in the black portion of the cemetery was in 1985.  

 

On Decoration Day in May, she will carry on the tradition of her matriarchs, joining dozens of others in laying fresh flowers on the graves and posing for pictures that serve as their own historic markers, charting the birth and growth of children and marking deaths by the faces that are absent. 

 

It is a homecoming of sorts, Mims says, and each plot is like an open-ended story waiting to be revealed. When the weather is nice, she enjoys strolling the grounds, imagining the stories the dead took with them on their final flight.  

 

"I just feel peaceful here," she says. "There's a serenity about this place. I feel so connected, because the people who have been the greatest influences of my life are here." 

 

And finally, more than a century after it was erected, the fence dividing west and east, black and white, has fallen.  

 

"(Black) history is entwined with my own family history," Mims says thoughtfully. "We all lived in this community together."

 

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.

 

 

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