Historic burial site restoration gathers community volunteers

Community

HUNTINGTON, WV (WOWK) — Over in Huntington, a restoration project is underway again at a little-known historic site left to become overgrown and forgotten.

Under the overgrown brush and foliage lies a piece of Huntington’s history.

For years, the Bethel Cemetery was the forgotten final resting place for many in the Black community, including war veterans. However, several community groups came out to restore the cemetery’s dignity on Friday, June 26, 2020.

Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle says it’s a travesty that the cemetery was allowed to fall into such disrepair.

“This is an ongoing project that we’ve taken on back in the fall, it’s the Bethel Cemetery, a Black cemetery that’s very historic in Huntington, and as you can see by your photographs and stuff, it has slipped into grave disrepair,” Zerkle said.

The work on cleaning up the cemetery started a few months ago, but efforts were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, volunteers have made a lot of headway since.

Of the plot, which spans between six and eight acres, Sheriff Zerkle says they’ve cleared about three acres.

When they cleared the brush away, they found a host of marked graves. However, the biggest surprise were the unmarked graves they didn’t know were there.

The unmarked graves are being notated by small orange flags, which litter the area.

Today, volunteers from rehabilitation facilities and the county’s home incarceration program spent hours removing the overgrowth.

Home incarceration volunteer Marcus Brown was moved by the endeavor.

“We’re out here cleaning up the cemetery.  Come to find out, this is a veteran’s memorial that has been kinda grown over and hasn’t been taken care of for quite some time, so we found out about it and me being on home confinement, we came out here, we’re volunteering our time to help pay respects to those who gave their lives for our country and our freedoms.” 

Marcus Brown, home incarceration volunteer

Another home incarceration volunteer Keith Allen lamented the fact the cemetery had been left in such a state.

“It’s kind of emotional to me, like, to think that you know, it’s like someone was forgotten you know what I mean?  And these folks gave their lives for our country and everything and just to let it overgrow like that, it’s kinda sad.” 

Keith Allen, home incarceration volunteer.

For these volunteers, it’s a way to help them through recovery, and an opportunity to give back to the community helping them get back on track.

“It’s always good to give back, cause I’ve been given a lot of opportunity in my life, and everytime I have a chance to give back that’s what I’m going to do,” Brown said.

Sheriff Zerkle says they hope to get the whole cemetery cleared out by late summer, but they’re going to need help to accomplish their goal.

“We’re in dire straits I mean, we’re trying to keep up…and we’re starting to make some headway but help is coming because of the recovery, the home incarceration, and now we’ve got the Black pastors involved, so it’s starting to get momentum, so we could eat this thing up pretty quick if we get some help.” 

Chuck Zerkle, Cabell County Sheriff

The Bethel Cemetery stopped being an active burial ground in the 70’s and is estimated to include more than 800 known grave sites.

To get involved with this effort, reach out to Carol Polan at polanc1952@gmail.com, or call (304) 633-2014. To make a donation to the cause, visit the Foundation for the Tri-State’s website.

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