Connie Bailey Kitts Published

Descendant Revisits, Revives African American Cemetery

connie 1.jpg

On a warm summer day, Susie Green and her 97-year-old mother Thedia Harris walked across a slope of Maple Hill Cemetery, looking for gravestones Thedia might recognize.

Green read a marker and called out “Trigg” to her mother.

“Oh yeah, I knew some of the Triggs,” Harris said.

Green called out the name “Bradshaw.”

Yeah, I had a friend who was one of the Bradshaws,” Harris said. “She used to cook beans and give them to me.”

Lawnmowers hummed in the distance. Green and her mother sat down near the shade of a large, old tulip poplar in this well-maintained section of the cemetery. But there hasn’t always been a place to sit down and the grass hasn’t always been cut. Not back in the 1950s when Green was a child.

“My mother would bring us out here to see her mother’s grave,” Green said. “But we couldn’t see it—the marker—because it was nothing but brush. And it was hard for me as a child to understand, ‘How in the world is your mother buried over there, and it’s weeds? You’re pointing to weeds.’”

This was the town’s African American cemetery. It was established in the 1890s. There was a larger cemetery for white residents as well. The two lie next to each other with a strip of pavement keeping them separate. Over the years, Black families were increasingly unable to bury relatives in this section of the cemetery as it became overgrown with thick brush and trees.

Joseph Bundy is an African American community historian and a long-time resident of the Bluefield area.

“The people who originally came up with the concept of a municipal cemetery felt they were meeting the needs of the community as a whole,” Bundy said. “But what you have to look at is that the community as a whole, due to the laws and the standards of that time, was segregated.”

“That necessitated drawing a line to keep the bodies separate,” he said. “And you know it’s not going to be equal if it’s separate because if it’s equal, why is it necessary to be separate?”

Like Green, Bundy remembers life under Jim Crow practices, when segregation was cradle to grave.

“When you were born in segregation you couldn’t be born in the white hospital. You weren’t accepted at your birth, and you’re not going to be accepted at your death—the most sacred parts of your existence being your birth and your death,” he said.

It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that cemeteries in the south stopped segregating by race.

Ruth Jackson is 91 and grew up next to Maple Hill Cemetery. She remembers watching the African American funeral processions in the late 1930s.

“They would come down to bury in the Black cemetery. They had their coffin in a wagon. I was a little tiny girl, five, six, seven and they would be singing,” she said. “They were sort of mournful and slow but they didn’t seem sad. I thought they were saying something about going up, and going up to heaven. They sang all the way up the street turning into the cemetery.”

One of those songs may have been “Hush, Hush Somebody’s Callin’ My Name,” Bundy said. He learned the song from his father.

“The feelings a person had, living through forced segregation from birth to death, were often expressed in the lyrics in the Negro spirituals,” he said. And one idea expressed, was that “at least when I get home—home being heaven—there, everything’s going to be equal and I won’t be segregated no more.”

The last funeral in the Black section of Maple Hill Cemetery was in 1964.

connie 7.jpg

Connie Bailey Kitts
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
World War I veteran Robert L. Dalton was a corporal in the 803rd Pioneer Infantry, which included the band of African Americans who played for French and American troops. His grave is now decorated on Memorial Day.

Over the next 40 years, thick and thorny brush and trees completely overtook the graveyard. The community’s memory of the nearly 300 community members buried there—pastors, midwives, miners, bricklayers, stonemasons and veterans—was at risk of disappearing forever.

Also at risk for African American families was their tradition of visiting and caring for the graves of their loved ones. But in the early 2000s, a volunteer working with the local historical society made a discovery and realized something that town officials seemed to have forgotten. June Brown was looking through old town records, when she found cemetery receipts for payments with the words “colored section” written on them. The town had owned the Black graveyard, and it had sold burial plots to Black residents.

“I just thought, ‘Why are those graves not being taken care of? These plots were paid for,’” Brown said.

A search of courthouse records later documented the town’s original 1896 purchase of the land for the Black cemetery.

“If it’s a public cemetery, then you don’t have a right not to take care of it. And that’s what I found in those papers,” she said.

Brown said she thought about going to the town council to press them to do something about the neglected graves. But she felt uncomfortable. Bluefield is a small town, mostly white. And she didn’t want to make waves.

“Looking back, I should have gone to the town council. I should have made a bigger stir. But I didn’t do that. I regret that now,” she said.

But Brown did tell a former town manager, Art Mead, about the receipts.

Mead had been manager when the town had put up a chain-link fence between the white and Black sections in the late 1980s. He began petitioning town officials to acknowledge ownership and remove the fence, to take care of the abandoned cemetery. But he says some officials didn’t want to hear about it.

connie 3.jpg

Connie Bailey Kitts
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Headstone of Rev. Braxton Rodgers, decorated with a rock lily. Jim Crow practices prevented many African American traditions of honoring the dead, Joseph Bundy said. “We rely on those monuments and things to remind us of the beauty both in the person and in the heart and soul and personality of our loved ones who have gone away. The ashes and dust they’re buried in—we can’t get that image of beauty from that. So that’s why we have statues of the angels in the cemetery, and the beautiful flowers, and the headstones and things of that nature.”

“The question I asked more than once, is, ‘Okay, we have white people on one side of this fence and Black people on the other side. The land was owned by the town, in both settings, fees were collected by the town—but yet we’re treating the two sides differently. How does that not equate to racial discrimination?’” Mead said.

It took about a year, but the town council finally voted to remove the fence and began clearing some of the brush.

And that brings us back to Susie Green.

In Oct. 2007, about a year after the fence came down, Green took a drive over to the Black cemetery with her Aunt Equila. And she learned something she wasn’t expecting. Her family had property rights in the cemetery.

“When we drove up, [Aunt Equila] said, ‘Now dad has a plot over here,’ and I said, ‘A plot?’”

“‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I have the original deed to the plot.’”

“I said, ‘What?’”

“She said, ‘Yeah, I have the original, because my mother gave it to me and told me to keep it,’” Green recounted.

And when Green got a look at the deed, she saw that it was dated 100 years almost to the day they’d been standing there. Green saw that as providence. And it inspired her to take action. She contacted a local reporter, and the paper ran a front-page story with a photo of her aunt holding the notarized deed.

Green asked the town to clear more brush, so her family and others could have access to their ancestors’ graves. She asked for a walkway and a plaque that would tell the history of the people buried there.

“It’s not about looking back and pointing a finger,” Green said. “With me, it never has been. It’s about going forward. And healing the racism that caused this condition. And getting through it. And the best way I thought to get through it was to remember it. As a point in history.

It would take her the next 15 years, working with four different town managers, to reach her goals.

In 2012, the town council voted to restore all of the African American cemetery. But even then, Green says it didn’t go smoothly. At one point, the town brought in excavators and bulldozers to clear the site—displacing gravemarkers.

“When we came out here and saw the huge yellow earth movers, I thought, ‘That’s not the way you do it,’” Green said.

When spring came, the town planted grass and began regular maintenance, paid for by the town’s perpetual care fund.

In the summer of 2021, Virginia made Juneteenth a state holiday and Green took her family to the celebration in Tazewell, the county seat. She made an announcement there about the cemetery.

“We have been able to apply to the Virginia Historic Resources to obtain a highway marker that will have information about the community that’s been buried there and the history of Maple Hill Cemetery,” Green said.

Five months later, on a cold and windy Thanksgiving weekend, a group gathered in the cemetery to witness the unveiling of that historical highway marker. Charlie Stacy, the Tazewell County Supervisor who represents the Bluefield area, was there.

connie 6.jpg

WVVA Broadcasting
Charlie Stacy, Bluefield resident and member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, looks down on the grave markers of both Black and white members of the community.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is an apology, that we should not have had an event like this. The folks buried behind me are as much of making Bluefield, Virginia what it is, as the folks buried in front of me. And yet I never knew this section even existed,” he said.

A crowd stood on a crest overlooking both sections, Black and white, about 8,000 gravestones total. Green told them that naming the names is about more than restoring graves. It’s about finding our stories and telling them to the next generation.

“Know that your grandfather or your great-grandfather or your great-great-grandparents had something important to do with the establishment of this town. The post office that we go into now was built in the 1930s by African Americans. The churches in our community were built by the laborious expertise of our forefathers. We need to carry more than just the surnames of our ancestors. We inherited their resilience and their tenacity,” Green said.

“When we visit a graveyard,” she said, “we are visiting the remnants of an African American cultural system, a value system. We are touching base with the principles for which they stood.”

“We may never see their faces on a picture in town hall. We may never see them on a postage stamp, or streets and avenues named after them,” she said. “But there was dignity in their lives and there is dignity in their deaths.”

Green has commissioned a memorial of three tall granite stones that will include the names of those missing grave markers. The town has also pledged to help pay for it.

Special thanks to the late Dr. Jerry French for his help in researching this story.