Restoration of Historic African American Cemetery Takes "Giant Leap Forward"

photo of Gaines headstone

Clean-up and restoration of a historic African American cemetery near Junction City took a “giant leap forward” recently, thanks to ground-penetrating radar, a long stretch of ideal late summer weather and an ample supply of eager volunteers from the Danville and Richmond campuses of Eastern Kentucky University and the community.

The radar equipment, supplied and staffed by representatives of Cultural Resource Analysts Inc. (CRAI) on Friday, Sept. 19, helped to turn up a military headstone, a metal vault and an intact casket. In addition, newly discovered death certificates at the Smith Jackson Funeral Home in Danville may reveal critical information from the early 20th century, a time when the process for preparing death certificates was not always strictly followed.

Overgrown and neglected until the EKU-Danville Genealogy Club adopted the three-acre cemetery as a community service project more than a year ago, the Shelby City African American Cemetery is now revealing a rich history of local African Americans, many of whom were former slaves.

One of the first radar finds was a buried stone on the southwest corner of the cemetery. A quick excavation by excited student volunteers revealed a large headstone base with a slotted top. It was soon determined that the stone that fit the slot belonged to Ed Gaines, father of Harlem Hellfighter Wallace Gaines, a member of the celebrated all-black Army infantry regiment from New York that saw action in World Wars I and II.

“When the students lifted the Gaines headstone into the slot, it was a perfect fit,” said Cindy Peck, director of the EKU-Danville campus. “A wonderful moment!”

Dr. Russell Quick, geophysical archaeologist with CRAI, also discovered while using the radar a metal vault under the slope of a road berm, just a few feet from the headstone of James Cohen, who died as a result of stepping on a land mine in Sicily while serving in World War II. At that point, CRAI CEO Chuck Niquette exclaimed: “You’ve just reunited your headstone there with these remains. The remains of soldiers who died in the line of duty in World War II were shipped home in metal caskets.”

Radar also “confirmed the presence of an intact casket in the same area in which one of our recent interviewees had told us he witnessed the last burial in the cemetery around 1964,” Peck said. “We don’t have a death certificate for this person, but hope to soon.”

Quick concluded that an area on the north side of Short Acres Road is “fairly dense” with burials, “but we will have areas in which we could place a proper sign for the cemetery and a historical marker,” Peck said. “Based on his scan of this area, he has also concluded that at one time there was a fence around the entire cemetery.”

Quick added that a recently located aerial scan of the area north of the cemetery and south of the old L & N Railroad track conducted in the 1990s suggested additional burial sites. “He calculates that when this area is added to the cemetery as we know it, the size of the Shelby City African American Cemetery would be almost exactly three acres,” Peck said, adding that ground scans on that site would require landowner permission.     

Also, community volunteer and Boyle County genealogist Barry Sanborn recently located a beautifully etched headstone in the extreme rear of the cemetery. The stone, for 20-year-old Maggie Carpenter, had been bulldozed but was found intact, under a deep pile of dirt and leaves along a fence line. Stenciled on the stone were the sad but hopeful words: “She joined the church when 14 years old and lived a faithful Christian until death and is now with Jesus at home.”

Peck called it “a very sweet monument that is quite different from any others we’ve found so far.”

Already, more than 150 grave shafts, many of them belonging to men and women who were born into slavery, have been identified, as well as 142 death certificates from 1911 to 1961.

Local genealogist Carolyn Crabtree, who is helping track the 19th century ownership of the land, has suggested researching the wills of wealthy landowners for references to the cemetery. “She is looking at the possibility that perhaps two or three landowners in the Short Acres Road area donated land together to form this cemetery for their slaves,” Peck said. “The location is certainly right for such an agreement. We’re hoping to find something definite soon.”

Other Boyle County volunteers who have made significant contributions to the research and restoration of the cemetery include historian and Boyle County Genealogical Association President Mike Denis, Danville-Boyle County African American Historical Society member Charles Grey, retired minister Ralph Godbey, and EKU anthropology graduate Gayle McQueary. “Their knowledge, expertise, and camaraderie have made this project a real joy,” Peck said.

Meanwhile, the application process for a historical marker continues, as official word from the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office is awaited on “association” status. “Once we are an officially recognized association, we believe that we will have more clout to control the cemetery’s future,” Peck said, “and be in an even better position to direct the cleanup of other cemeteries in bad shape.”

Also, work continues on a brochure about the cemetery that can be distributed in public places and posted online, and EKU anthropology student Mary Hagan is preparing instructional materials for students.

Volunteer hours donated Sept. 13-20 totaled more than 150, bringing the project total to almost 1,150. Recent volunteers have represented several EKU organizations, including Alpha Phi Omega, Kappa Delta Tau and the Anthropology Club. Nearby Centre College was represented by students in the Bonner Scholar and New Horizons Scholar programs. Also on hand for the radar scanning were EKU-Danville staff, faculty and alumni; students from Jamie Hester’s freshman science class at Boyle County High School; community members from the Danville-Boyle County African American Historical Society and the Boyle County Genealogical Association; and staff members from the EKU CARES Office and Government Relations Office.

The cemetery project received a $10,000 Regional Stewardship Grant earlier this year from EKU CARES (the acronym for the University’s Center for Appalachian Regional Engagement and Scholarship) in University Programs.

“As always, we could not do this without the incredible work of our volunteers, who give so generously of their time and talent,” Peck said. “Their work last week was nothing short of magical. I have never worked on such a satisfying project with such concerned, knowledgeable and fun people.”

Peck also saluted the “very generous donation” of ground-penetrating radar services from Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., headquartered in Lexington, specifically Niquette, Quick and bio archaeologist Alexandra Bybee. “Their knowledge and resources have been just invaluable.”

Anyone with additional knowledge of the cemetery or wishing to assist the project in any way should contact Peck at or 859-236-6866 or 859-622-6736.

Published on September 24, 2014

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