Volunteers take action to restore historic cemetery

Posted at 6:41 PM, Oct 31, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-31 18:41:13-04

Suffolk, Va. - Volunteers took action Thursday to restore an historic African-American cemetery in Suffolk that had been neglected for years.

"It had just gotten to the point that something needed to be done," said Tracy Stewart of the Historic Oaklawn Cemetery Foundation.

Stewart, who grew up in Suffolk, has been waiting for this day for a long time. In fact, he's been working with community leaders for years to get the 13-acre cemetery back to what it used to be - a cemetery where business owners, civic leaders and military veterans since the Civil War are buried.  But since Oaklawn Cemetery is private, there wasn't much the City of Suffolk could do about the upkeep.  So that's when Dominion Virginia Power volunteers stepped in.

"They've already today uncovered at least 40 graves that have probably been covered for 50 years or better. And they're finding something every time they move down the hill," said Stewart.

"When I was a boy, it was the cemetery. In fact, it was created for people that look like me," said 90-year-old George Richards.  Richards, who is also a Suffolk native, has been working alongside Stewart to get something done here.

"When I looked at this and saw the way it was being neglected, it bothered me," said Richards.

Volunteers spent much of the day chipping up tree limbs, mowing grass and raking up leaves to get the cemetery back in shape.  But the work was a challenge to crews at times since the cemetery has several levels on site, with some graves located on "steps" that continue down to a ravine. Still, Richards, Stewart, and the volunteers are pleased with the work being done to help preserve the cemetery's history.

"I don't believe they're going away. I've got a feeling that they feel as good about this thing as I do, and I believe that they're coming back," said Richards about the volunteers.

"This is a part of Suffolk's history that had been neglected. And I'm thankful I was born and raised and brought up the right way to be able to do something and this is what I can do," said Stewart.