EKU-Danville Students Helping to Clean, Preserve Historic African American Cemetery

photo of cemetery

Students at EKU’s Danville campus are uncovering the past – literally.

The EKU-Danville Genealogy Club recently decided to “adopt” a cemetery as a community service project. While cutting overgrowth and cleaning debris from an African American cemetery near Junction City, the students (joined by faculty, alumni, and community volunteers) discovered several additional headstones and unmarked graves. Using information from the headstones and working with historian Mike Denis, president of the Boyle County Genealogical Society, they have now identified more than 50 graves, many of them belonging to people who were born into slavery.

“Mike is compiling the death certificates of African American residents of Boyle County,” said Cindy Peck, director of the Danville campus and staff advisor for the Genealogy Club. “He is combing through records from 1911 (when death certificates became mandatory in Kentucky) to the present. Many of the people in this cemetery were born in the early 1800s and were enslaved by local landowners. While researching the slave owners and families, we have found many familiar names — Shelby, McDowell and Wallace, to name a few. So in addition to the contributions and remarkable individual stories of the people buried here, there are also these significant historical connections.”

Many of the headstones are broken, but names and dates are at least partially visible. These were found largely in parts of the cemetery that are difficult to access because of the damage from trees downed during the last ice storm. The research with the death certificates is turning up more names every day.

One EKU-Danville student, Eric Howard, secretary of the EKU Genealogy Club, was able to identify GPS locations of several graves, “which means we can begin to send those to the Lincoln County PVA office, where they will plug them into the plat map,” Peck said. “So it is possible that, even before we have the entire cemetery cleaned up, we might begin to see the pattern of the burials.”

Several individuals who live near the cemetery have stopped to thank the volunteers. An adjacent landowner has mowed a walking path to the rear of the property, easing access to some of the older graves. Another visitor was Lincoln County Judge Executive Jim Adams, who stopped to walk the length of the cemetery with the workers. “He thanked the volunteers who were there and declared the project to be ‘huge,’” Peck said. “By the time we walked the entire width and length of the (approximately 2.4-acre) plot, we all felt that, too.”

The property owner across from the cemetery confirmed recently that there are also “older” graves on the south side of the current cemetery. But none of these graves are marked with headstones or fieldstones. The group hopes to be able to pay for archaeological assistance with ground-penetrating radar to identify all of the burial sites on both sides of the road that now cuts the cemetery in half.

Peck said additional American History classes at the Danville campus will get involved as the project continues.

“This is an amazing opportunity for students to use primary source materials to do history,” she said, “and perhaps make a contribution of their own to African American history in Lincoln and Boyle counties.”

Published on November 06, 2013