Usually my cemetery articles are generic and address the problems facing almost every cemetery in Mason County; however, I thought I’d narrow it down for this article. It’s true that every cemetery in Mason County needs some help. Some may need something as simple as a new fence to keep out animals. Others may need headstones repaired. The worst need a full-blown cleanup and restoration. However, the most neglected cemeteries across our county are without a doubt the old African-American cemeteries. This goes for both the freedmen and slave cemeteries.
Mason County, from its earliest history, has had an African-American population. In the beginning, we were part of a slave state. It’s a dark, unexplored part of our county’s history, and it is one that needs brought to light. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many newly freed slaves left the area, seeking to start a new life. However, some stayed, and many more arrived, to work in the region’s coal and salt industries. It provided a steady job, but it was still equivalent to industrial slavery for all those involved. Years later, as those industries collapsed and segregation increased, many African-Americans again chose to leave the region. In many cases, those who chose to stay were those who had no other choice, like the patients at the Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane.
Every one of these communities had their own cemetery. Every slave plantation had a burial ground specifically for the slaves, every free African-American community had a cemetery, and even the State Hospital had its own cemetery.
The hardest ones to locate are the slave cemeteries. In many cases, these were on the far edge of the plantation and marked only by field stones that have since been buried or destroyed. To make matters more difficult, these cemeteries usually weren’t well-documented in the first place because it was one of those “family secrets.” This lack of documentation or markers leads to eventual destruction, and without conducting a full survey of the county, I worry about what has already happened to some. Though to be fair, there are exceptions to this. Most of the plantations listed on the National Register of Historic Places include the slave cemetery as part of the listing, thereby making it public record.
Next comes the free African-American cemeteries. These were usually near another cemetery, making them easier to locate. For instance, the cemetery in Mason is just down the hill from the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This makes it much easier to find. These cemeteries are also more likely to be remembered by the rest of the community because they’re nearby, saving them from destruction. However, these cemeteries are still usually unmarked, and rely solely on memory to prevent their destruction.
Finally, the institutional cemeteries are in the best shape. The Lakin State Hospital cemetery is located about a mile behind the current nursing home and prison, and it is still maintained by the state government. The main problem with this cemetery, and one that applies to the other two as well, is that there is no info on who is buried there. At Lakin, they may have headstones, but many of these still simply say “Unknown.”
I’ve been using Mason County examples, but this isn’t just our problem. It’s happening all over the state. In Shepherdstown, previously unknown African-American cemeteries were found underneath the university by the college’s archaeologist.
The only way to fix this is to start with the ones we know, mark them on maps, and expand from there. It’ll take a lot of research and more likely than not, some expensive technology. Ground penetrating radar can do wonders finding unmarked burial grounds. Even then, we may not find them all, but documenting and saving 80 percent is better than saving none.
Our Society has already started to locate these forgotten cemeteries, but if you know of any, please don’t hesitate to email us at email@example.com.
Information for this article from cemetery records and Rizer’s personal research.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. The next meeting of the historical and preservation society will be at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 at the New Haven Library, barring extreme weather.