Buried But Not Forgotten: Church honors unmarked graves of slaves

KNWA

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — A memorial sits outside of a Fayetteville graveyard, where nearly 100 slaves are buried. There are no markers, no headstones and very few records, but it’s a part of Arkansas’ rich history. A local church is making sure those buried are never forgotten.​

“This used to be the edge of town actually. So, for the city of Fayetteville this was it the street Millsap,” said Pastor Reginald James with the Christian Life Cathedral.

It’s also home to one of the oldest cemeteries in Fayetteville, the Historic Gehring Chapel Cemetery established in the early 1800’s. But the headstones here don’t represent all of the bodies buried in the land.

When they did an aerial of the area, they ended up finding out there were unmarked graves,” said James.

Nearly 100 graves belonging to slaves were discovered outside the cemetery in 2014 while scouting the area to place a phone tower for the community.

“​These situations are not unique to Northwest Arkansas, in the south in particular you’ll find a bunch a grave that are outside of a graveyard​​.”

​Nearly 1,400 slaves were recorded in the census for Washington County in 1860, the total population at that time nearly 15,000.

​James looked to older families with deep roots in the area to find a connection to the graves, like Regina French who was born and raised in Fayetteville.

“They were part of the fabric of this community​​. It all came from Madison County from my dad’s side and on my mom’s side was the Lackeys and the Flowers out of Cane Hill. I always tell people they came together to make something pretty like me,” said French.

​French didn’t live through the slave era, but some of her family’s stories survived. “​I knew more about them being sharecroppers and raised horses. It was more domestic work.”

​French said she wouldn’t be surprised if an ancestor of hers was buried in the graveyard.​​ “I was never told about them. So that history is gone with someone else.”

“​There weren’t a huge number of slave owners in Washington County, but there were some…​​​That is how you got household help and farming help…So it was certainly not an admirable thing to do but that’s the way it was,” said former Washington County Historical Society President, Ann Wiggans Sugg.

​Sugg’s family was one of them. They traveled from Tennessee in 1852 by wagon trains and river boats, with 14 slaves. One of those slaves Adeline Blakeley.

“​I knew that she was given as a wedding present to my great grand mother by my great great grandparents the Parks,” said Sugg.

​Blakeley took care of the children, including Sugg. ​”After the war, Adeline said the soldiers came and accused the Blakeley’s of holding Adeline against her will and she said no these are my people. It was her choice to stay with them.​​”

She stayed with the family until she died in 1945, even buried on the family’s plot of land in Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville. ​​”As far as I know, she is the only black to be buried there​​,” said Sugg.

​A memorial was built near the unmarked gravesite. It has a plaque with the words in part “blessed be the memory of those who have no name, no face. You have found rest from the issues of this life.”

It also includes a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “the time is always right to do what is right.”

“​There should be a voice given to those who had no voice and a place and space designated for those who had no space or reminder of their legacy of how they have impacted this area​​​” said James.

​James said he may never learn the names or the full stories of those buried throughout the land, but he plans to honor their legacys for years to come.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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