Shelby City Cemetery Project Rediscovering Graves Of Kentucky Slaves And Soldiers

Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 11:48 am     By Ben Kleppinger
JUNCTION CITY — Jordan Wallace Jr. lived 29 years as a slave, three years as a soldier and 71 years as a free man.
Now, 75 years after his death — and 178 years after he was born — Wallace’s final resting place is being rediscovered, along with the graves of dozens of other African-Americans, in a small cemetery plot just inside Lincoln County that had seemed to be nothing but an overgrown forest for decades.
“It’s very exciting to uncover things that have been hidden and invisible for so long,” said Cindy Peck, director at Eastern Kentucky University’s Danville campus.
Peck and a new student genealogy club at the satellite campus have been visiting what’s known as the Shelby City African-American Cemetery for the past three Saturdays, clearing away trees and underbrush as part of a volunteer service project.
The cemetery, named for the community that used to exist in the area until around 1926, was first used as a gravesite as early as the 1700s and as late as 1952, according to those researching it.
“I feel like Indiana Jones,” said Eric Howard, a sophomore and a member of the genealogy club.
Howard has been recording the GPS coordinates of graves in the cemetery.
“It just seems like there’s a lot of history that has went unsaid back here,” he said.
Shelby City African-American Cemetery
By Ben Kleppinger——Henry Payne, a facilitator at EKU’s Danville campus, carries cut logs out of a forested area of the Shelby City African-American Cemetery Saturday.
Peck said the service project turned into something much bigger after the club looked up the first grave they found, which belonged to Wallace.
According to historical research, Wallace was born a slave, eventually owned by a woman who was the niece of Ephraim McDowell and the niece-by-marriage of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor. Wallace saluted Abraham Lincoln more than once as a black soldier during the Civil War. He was present at Appomattox Court House when Lee surrendered to Grant. And he lived on to witness World War I and beyond during his 103-year lifetime.
“At that point, I was completely hooked,” Peck said. “Every person in this cemetery has a story and it’s just fascinating.”
Including Wallace, at least seven graves in the cemetery belong to black people who served in the military during the Civil War, World War I and World War II, according to information from the genealogy club.
Many other graves apparently belong to family members of those military men.
Others from around the Lincoln and Boyle communities have been pitching in or offering to help revive the 2.5-acre plot near the end of Short Acres Road on the edge of Junction City.
The genealogy club is getting help from nearby landowner Danny Browne, the Boyle County Genealogical Society and EKU faculty members as they clean up the land and research the graves.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the Kentucky Heritage Council and Lincoln County Property Valuation Administrator David Gambrel are among others who are helping or may help in the future with the project.
Gambrel officially rediscovered the cemetery about eight years ago as he was out performing his annual property assessments around the county.
What might have looked like nothing more than an overgrown patch of forest to anyone else set off alarm bells for Gambrel, who said he’s been looking at land in Lincoln County for so many years that “you kind of get a sense for it.”
After figuring out the land had at one time been used as a cemetery, Gambrel exempted it from property taxes as a way to give it a little protection through recognition.
Shelby City African-American Cemetery
Photo submitted / Image graphically altered by Ben Kleppinger——Flags placed by Boyle County Genealogical Society Preisdent Mike Denis for Veterans Day mark the tombstones of several recently rediscovered graves of military veterans in the Shelby City African-American Cemetery in Lincoln County. Denis expects to identify more than 100 graves in the cemetery, which is being cleaned up by a student genealogy club at Eastern Kentucky University’s Danville campus.
“How can we protect a cemetery if we don’t know it’s there?” Gambrel asked. “Identifying the cemeteries is the first step.”
Historical African-American cemeteries are rare and are also the “most vulnerable” to dilapidation, Gambrel said.
That’s not due to a lack of caring from living family members, but largely because there was no economic opportunity for black people in the area, which forced many to move away, he explained.
Gambrel, an avid Lincoln County historian, identified eight of the graves on his own after discovering the cemetery.
Boyle Genealogical Society President Mike Denis is part of the effort to revitalize the cemetery grounds and said he has been digging through Boyle County death records to connect them with graves.
As of Saturday, a total of 72 graves had been identified, he said.
After tapping other sources, like pre-1911 death records available from Smith-Jackson Funeral Home, Denis said he expects to identify more than 100 graves in the cemetery.
Boyle County Genealogical Society member Barry Sandborn said while the presence of the cemetery had been known for several years, the extent and importance of the graves inside it is just now being revealed.
“When I first saw this, I just could not believe it,” he said. “They (the graves) have been in the dark too long. Now they get to see the sun.”
Peck said there are clusters of family members buried together in the cemetery, which means living descendants could be reconnected with large pieces of their family trees.
“We would very much like to contact any living descendants of the people buried here because I am sure that the families have no idea,” she said.
As progress continues on clearing the overgrown land, Peck said it’s becoming easier to see where the rows of graves were originally laid.
“There are all these patterns emerging and that’s great for our students,” she said. “It’s been a great learning process so far for them.”
There seems to be a lot more left to learn — the full extent and history of the cemetery is still largely unknown.
Research by those involved and interviews with neighbors suggests the cemetery originally extended further to the south than the current 2.5-acre plot. Short Acres Road was likely constructed on top of part of the cemetery, splitting it in two, she said.
Two military headstones for soldiers from World War I and World War II appear to have been moved from their original graves in order to allow for construction of the road, Peck said.
Shelby City African-American Cemetery
By Ben Kleppinger—–From left, 3-year-old Carlie Carrier, EKU student Lora Ballard and 10-year-old Sabrina Stevens tote a wheelbarrow of logs away from the cemetery.
Peck hopes the genealogy club can raise money to use ground-penetrating radar and find more graves on the other side of the road.
Researchers believe it’s possible the cemetery began as a black cemetery for slaves that worked at the home of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor.
Peck said this is possible because the cemetery is located on a straight line and just a short distance from the Shelby estate. But that idea has yet to be confirmed, she added.
Whatever the origin of the cemetery turns out to be, the genealogy club seems intent on making sure the history held in its soil doesn’t disappear again.
Peck said the club is keeping track of how many volunteer hours are contributed to the project in hopes it can secure a grant to put up a fence around the cemetery that could help protect it for a long time to come.
“These people had very little control over their lives in life,” she said. “They deserve better in death. They deserve their dignity.”

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