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Forgotten gravesite: Restoring the Bethel Memorial Cemetery

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WOWK) — Marshall University held its 3rd “Annual MLK Day of Service” on Friday, January 24, 2020. More than 100 volunteers made up of faculty, staff, and students made their way to different non-profits throughout Huntington.

One group, however, focused on the Bethel Memorial Park Cemetery, a forgotten African American cemetery on Bethel Road. The cemetery is covered in debris and trees, but around 30 volunteers with Marshall University took on the “Day of Service” to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the lessons Dr. King left us with is “do the right thing, always.” The sentiment quite literally cost Dr. King his life. “Let’s say in theory, [families] want to visit their loved one. This is what they’re greeted with currently,” said Dr. James Bryce about the locked gate and debris along Bethel Road that is the entrance to the cemetery. Dr. Bryce is an assistant professor of civil engineering at Marshall University.

The right thing to do in this instance was to bring honor and respect to those whose final resting place is Bethel Memorial Park Cemetery. The historically African American cemetery has more than 800 graves that have been covered by trees and overgrowth. Not all of the graves have headstones and many of the people buried at Bethel are veterans.

“Especially for black folks, it’s important to invest time into a cemetery that obviously is in the condition that it is because it was disinvested in,” said Malik Smith, a senior at Marshall studying civil engineering.

Students like Smith cleared out debris and used orange flags to mark graves that they could find.

Orange markers laid out by volunteers to identify graves throughout Bethel Memorial Park Cemetery

Some graves were marked by a simple large rock. “Just to be frank, we could be standing on top of a grave right now, we don’t know it,” said Bryce.

While there haven’t been any burials at Bethel Memorial Park Cemetery in decades, it makes Smith wonder about racism and segregation when the cemetery first opened in 1927, and why these American citizens and veterans were forgotten.

“On the drive up here, I [passed] another cemetery which was taken care of,” said Smith. “Then, to come here, and [see] the condition that [Bethel is in] I’m honestly surprised about it. I thought for me to volunteer was the most impactful thing I could do.”

Once the debris is cleared in the next couple of months, Dr. Bryce’s class will use a ground-penetrating radar to identify any other graves. With the help of volunteers, the hope is to have the cemetery ready for people to visit their loved ones in a year’s time.

It’s an effort that will consist of the Marshall community and the Huntington community doing the right thing.

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