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75 Fort Eustis soldiers bring boost to overgrown slave-era cemeteries

Elmerton Cemetery in Hampton, Va. (Google Maps/Released)
September 22, 2020

Ghana Smith got a call from Army Staff Sgt. Israel Lopez a few weeks back, telling her he was bringing “a group of people” from Fort Eustis last weekend to help cut the grass at two overgrown historic cemeteries in Hampton.

Smith thought that meant “five or 10″ soldiers would show up at the Bassette and Elmerton burial grounds — where grass up to four feet high covered the 1800s gravestones of African Americans, including many former slaves.

But when she arrived at the North King Street cemeteries that Saturday, scores of soldiers were already there, along with some other volunteers.

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“It was just so overwhelming when I turned the corner and I saw all the cars lined up,” said Smith, who coordinates the cemetery cleanups for the Barrett-Peake Heritage Foundation. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God’ … This is bigger than what I imagined.”

Starting at 7 a.m., the 75 or so soldiers — wearing camouflage pants and hats and their Fort Eustis command’s black T-shirts — used lawn mowers, weed whackers, sickles and scythes to cut down the grasses.

Some of the soldiers had spouses and children with them, while Boy Scouts and other volunteers also on hand pushed the total to more than 100.

Five hours later, just past noon, a huge pile of cut grass sat on the cemetery on the Bassette Cemetery side, while more than 200 bags of grass lined the North King Street curb.

There’s still more to do, but “we made a big dent today,” Smith said after the event.

“When you do something like this, you get you get instant gratification,” Lopez added. “Because the results of your work are there for you to view.”

“Man, it was perfect — it was awesome,” said Whalan McDew, 57, who runs ’Do Gooders of Hampton Roads,’ which also volunteers at the historic Hampton graveyards. “We knew he was gonna bring some volunteers. We just didn’t know it was gonna be that many. And I’m ex-Army, so it was really special for me to see the Army guys come out to do that.”

Lt. Col. Boyce Buckner, the battalion commander for the 1-210th Aviation Regiment at Fort Eustis, was also on hand.

It all began in June, he explained, as an outreach effort from the Army base to the local community after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At the time, he said, the Army was being “perceived negatively” in some circles around the nation.

“I said, ‘Let’s get out into our community, and let’s share who we are,’” Buckner said. “Let’s share what we do well. Let’s just get all those good things out there and make a difference.”

Lopez, who initiated and spearheaded the cemetery idea after Buckner’s outreach challenge, said the number of soldiers who turned out — all of them volunteers — was more than he anticipated.

“I was expecting maybe 30 or 40 people, something along those lines,” he said. “But we obviously doubled that. And then when you kind of know the history of the cemetery — and you realize what you’re getting the chance to pay tribute to, the heroes that are buried there — it’s a very humbling experience.”

Historic Hampton cemeteries

The Bassette and Elmerton cemeteries — across from each other near the Hampton bus terminal near East Pembroke Avenue — are private graveyards with more than 600 plots.

Aside from the slaves buried there, Smith and McDew said that lots of prominent people are there, too. That includes Mary S. Peake, famous for teaching the children former slaves under the Emancipation Oak at Hampton Institute, and A.W.E. Bassette, a respected community leader who died in 1941.

A while back, Smith said, a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter came to help out at the cemetery, and found the great grandmother’s grave, too.

Maintaining the two cemeteries was a dying wish of Dr. Mary T. Christian, an educator, lawmaker and community leader who died last year at age 95.

As a girl growing up, Smith said, Christian and her family would mark the graves with flags and flowers on holidays. Then she worked for decades on finding ways to maintain the cemeteries. That quest took on an added urgency in recent years when the Hampton Sheriff’s Office stopped using jail inmates to maintain the burial grounds.

But McDew said Christian regretted not being able to attend a cleanup event on Veterans Day 2019. That was the last time the cemeteries were fully cut.

That day, McDew said, he got word that Christian wanted the ‘Do Gooders’ to help the Barrett-Peake Foundation — a non-profit Christian founded in 2013 preserve Black historical sites in Hampton — to maintain the cemeteries.

“Of course I said yes,” McDew said. “If you knew Dr. Christian, you knew that when she asked you do something, you come. She had that spirit.”

Christian died that night.

But over the past year, McDew said, it hasn’t been easy to keep up with the ever-growing cemetery grass. Though the groups went out fairly regularly, he said, there were setbacks due to the pandemic, and it was a struggle to always get enough volunteers and equipment.

How soldiers got on board

Enter the Fort Eustis soldiers.

Back in June, following George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, some began criticizing the Army for the National Guard’s role in quelling the civil unrest that followed.

Buckner said he found that negative perception disturbing. The Army works against racial discrimination, he said, and “we believe as soldiers that we are folks who actually understand and get it.”

“I felt as though there’s some negative energy being directed in our direction, and perhaps people just don’t know about our programs or what we do — or how well we’ve done with it over time,” Buckner said. “And so we felt like we needed to address it.”

In July, he launched an effort among soldiers in his command to both have the “hard conversations” about Floyd’s death and its aftermath — as well as spread a positive message of unity within Fort Eustis.

Then Buckner urged his battalion of about 200 soldiers to spread that message outside the base, too. “I challenged them to consider how we can take this positive communication effort and transform it into an enduring, positive action that transcends beyond the walls of Fort Eustis,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Lopez — a 35-year-old helicopter repair instructor who’s been stationed at Fort Eustis for two years — began spearheading the effort locally. Aside from his normal duties, Lopez is also an Army “Equal Opportunity Leader,” a group of soldiers chosen to work on such issues as harassment, bullying and discrimination.

A colleague told Lopez about a Richmond non-profit that helped to maintain old cemeteries in that city. Lopez called that group, and someone there suggested the Hampton organizations.

“Once I met them, I pretty much knew they were the right group for us,” Lopez said of the Do Gooders and Barrett-Peake Foundation.

Buckner, too, was immediately on board. “The second I heard about this, I was like, ‘We’re in,’” he said. “I don’t even need to hear anything else.”

He liked that the cemetery project is closely connected to Black history and is “about the community trying to preserve its history and showing respect to those who have who have passed on.”

Lopez set a date for the event and began spreading word at the base for volunteers. “He really put his heart and soul into it,” Buckner said. “Then he put a mark on the wall and said, ‘Sir, I think this is the day that we go out.’”

Buckner was also able to use some military outreach funds to host a barbecue for all the volunteers.

“That’s so folks could enjoy and break bread with us after we’ve worked hard for several hours,” he said. “Because to me, nothing is better than opening your table to people you’ve just met, and hearing their story.”

‘Doing the Hallelujah dance’

Lopez’s plan now, he said, is to have the Fort Eustis soldiers come out to the cemeteries about once a month.

Smith, of Barrett-Peake, said her “strategic plan” is to have other volunteers come out in the next couple weeks to maintain what’s already been cut, then have the soldiers attack the taller areas in October.

McDew, for his part, said he’s happy that Mary Christian is getting her wish. “It was her passion to make sure that these cemeteries were taken care of, and we didn’t want to disappoint,” he said.

As the cleanup was underway that morning, Smith got a text message from Mary Christian’s daughter, Benita Taylor, who lives in Northern Virginia. Taylor had seen a Facebook post about the massive cemetery cleanup, and sent Smith a note.

“I know my mother is doing the Hallelujah dance up in heaven right now,” Taylor wrote in the message.

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© 2020 the Daily Press