HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WOWK) — Community members and volunteers are working diligently to recover a part of Huntington’s history. The Bethel Memorial Park Cemetery was created in 1927 for the African-American community. It is the final resting place for hundreds of people from all walks of life, including war veterans, but at some point in time, this cemetery was forgotten.
“If you had not had a way in you would not have known it was a cemetery,” said Carol Polan, City of Huntington councilwoman, and a board member of Recovered Solutions.
There are about 800 graves at Bethel Cemetery, and some have been overcome by the trees and bushes in the area. One of the headstones that was lost and has now been found is a black Spanish-American War veteran.
“You see broken stones. You see stones that are slipping over the hill, so it’s a sad state,” said Polan,
Robert Sterling Hall, who at more than 80 years old was volunteering his time on Monday to clean the area up, said the cemetery has “eight to ten acres that were completely and totally overgrown”.
But since this Summer, Hall has been receiving help in cleaning up the cemetery from Polan and volunteers from Recovered Solutions.
One of the volunteers at Recovered Solution that has been helping out is Shelby Phillips. She has even been putting together a burial plot chart so they can keep track of all the gravesites they have uncovered.
“It’s rewarding, and it makes me feel good that someone is taking care of it,” said Phillips.
Polan and Hall said other groups and even the property owners tried to improve the cemetery in the past, in 1997 and 2013, but they had to give up because it was too much work due to the size and scale of the cemetery.
“There was nobody else in the area that had an interest in taking care of it. The park board, they did not want to take this on primarily, and I’m sure, because of the expense,” said Hall.
But Polan, Hall, and other community members feel they can see it through because they have a little more resources and have been receiving donations to use on things like yard equipment to clean up the area.
They want to fulfill the promise of restoration and commitment to the families who have loved ones buried in the cemetery and want to visit them.
“The thing that brought tears to me is when we started in the heavy brush and we found where people had climbed through there and left flowers,” said Polan.
She also said veterans that have been laid to rest in a cemetery should not be abandoned. They should have a place to be that is clean and peaceful, and their families and descendants be able to come visit them without obstruction.
Even though the group has been receiving lots of help since the Summer and has accomplished a lot, they said there is still much to do and they can use even more help just do the the size of this cemetery, and the number of people buried there.
“We need people with metal detectors, because some of the graves that were not marked still have metal plates,” said Polan.
Hall and Polan said one of the groups supporting the restoration of the cemetery is the Black Pastors Association in Huntington, and Virgil Johnson, of Real Life Christian Church, said the black pastors are talking to each member of the congregations to help with cleaning up.
“We as the black neighborhood it would make us proud to know that there is a black cemetery, heroes, and people that we didn’t even know about,” said Johnson.
He also said he didn’t know there was a black cemetery himself until Bishop Shaw told him recently.
“I heard there were a lot of black people and soldiers buried up here. I thought that was interesting. . . I never even knew there was a black cemetery in Huntington,” said Johnson.
Hall said one of the reasons the cemetery might have been forgotten is because the last person buried there was more than 60 years ago.
But at the end of the day, the goal is to get as much help as they can, so they can get the area cleaned up before memorial day and eventually hand the cemetery off to a caretaker or group who can maintain it for generations to come.
“We will need to put together some money . . . some place that can earn income(endowment), so it can be taken care of after we are gone,” said Hall