Each month, soldiers volunteer their Saturdays hauling lawnmowers, weed wackers and rakes to two overgrown lots beside a bus stop. They toil under the sun, restoring two of Hampton, Virginia’s oldest Black cemeteries.
They mow, hack and rake away the 6-foot-tall sea of grass to reveal the concrete and granite headstones of Elmerton and Bassett cemeteries.
The lots hold some of the most important figures in Hampton’s Black history. But thick underbrush covered nearly every trace of the land’s significance before the volunteers started their work.
The city of Hampton doesn’t maintain either cemetery. Only a handful of volunteer organizations take care of the more than 900 graves dating to the 1850s.
On a recent Saturday, 30 volunteer soldiers arrived not to just help, but to honor the sergeant who introduced them to the work.
Sgt. 1st Class Israel Lopez took his final turn clearing the cemeteries before being transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky. In 2020, he began the volunteer group Unity Through Community with the 1st Battalion, 210th Aviation Regiment.
“This project will probably outlast myself. I take solace in that,” Lopez said. “We get to share so much of the history of this area with people who otherwise wouldn’t have known it.”
Local volunteer organizations began cleaning the cemetery decades ago. Mary Christian, the first African American woman to serve as a state delegate, began the initiative. She started by caring for her family’s graves.
Many historic graves around the cemeteries have slipped into disrepair as loved ones aged or moved out of town. Christian called on volunteers, and a network of local organizations — including the Do Gooders of Hampton Roads and Serve the City — grew around her.
Christian was 95 when she died in 2019, but the volunteer groups carry her legacy.
“We felt compelled to continue this important work,” Ghana Smith, who joined Christian’s work in her final three years, said. “The people that find that to be their final resting place. They deserve the respect.”
Smith’s volunteer work is an extension of her family traditions. For Easter and Mother’s Day, she cleans her ancestors’ grave stones and leaves flowers. On childhood road trips, her family stopped in Kentucky to pay respects at her great-grandparents’ resting place.
Smith is working on tracking the history of the Hampton cemeteries, which she considers sacred spaces.
Unlike cemeteries today, historic Black cemeteries are often organized into individual family plots, and families maintain their own corners.
For Whalan McDew, the president of Do Gooders of Hampton Roads, clearing is about caring for the city’s Black history.
“We should be taking care of our ancestors,” he said. “Almost like having a grandparent in a nursing home. You want to make sure they’re being taken care of properly.”
Lopez’s regiment wanted to find a way to respond to the police killing of George Floyd two years ago. So he created Unity Through Community, a program to get soldiers involved in volunteer work. He heard about the cemetery cleaning and saw it as the best opportunity to give back.
The first few summer months clearing the graves, soldiers could only push their way through half of one cemetery. The rainy season allowed grass to grow faster than the volunteers could cut it.
They didn’t make it to the corners of Elmerton until winter. Seeing the overgrown plot transform made the work worth it, Lopez said.
“Every time you cut away a piece of grass, and you expose one of those tombstones, you’ve essentially fought back against systemic and oppressive racism because that’s the reason why those cemeteries look the way that they do in the first place,” Lopez said.
Soldiers travel from across the country to Hampton Roads’ bases, so Lopez would offer every new volunteer a tour around the historic block. Maintaining these historic places is an opportunity to learn about their community.
As they hacked away at the underbrush, Lopez told volunteers about the historic family plots in Elmerton Cemetery.
Mary Peake, the revolutionary educator who taught Black children how to read in a time when it was outlawed, is buried alongside her family in a gated plot.
George Washington Fields, the first Black law graduate from Cornell University, rests in his family lot in Elmerton. He defended infamous cases in Hampton, such as that of Virginia Christian, the first female and minor to be executed by Virginia in the 20th century.
Lopez would take the volunteers around the block to the house that was once the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, a social and political organization founded by Janie Porter Barrett. She also founded the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls in 1915, one of the only respites for girls in the Virginia court system. Barrett is also buried in Elmerton Cemetery.
“There’s just so much history on one block,” he said.
The Bassett Cemetery hosts graves from the early 1900s, including the burial sites of veterans from World War I to the Vietnam War.
Lopez brought his daughter along. She skipped between the gravestones and hung around her father’s neck on his water breaks. He told her the stories of Peake and Porter Barrett. Sharing their history teaches her the resilience of Black women when many were considered property.
Each month, a bit more of Bassett Cemetery is uncovered as the volunteers plunge deeper into the trees that crowd the edges.
People are still finding families. Sometimes a new volunteer will float in with an elderly family member, asking for help to find their ancestor’s gravestone.
Specialist Anthony Colón from Advanced Individual Training practices the Army’s pillar of self-service. He came to clean the graves with his sergeant during his first week in the Hampton area.
He finds the unruly Virginia grass a struggle compared to his home in South Florida. As he uncovered fallen soldiers’ graves in Bassett Cemetery, he kept his mind on learning from the names.
“History teaches us lessons,” he said. “I hope someone will do the same for me when I’m in the ground.”
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