Friday, February 9, 2018

Hidden Cemeteries

A road trip back to visit family usually involves a trek to the cemeteries where long ago generations lie, awaiting attention from their descendants.  Flowers are laid, photos taken, silent prayers uttered.

Marker for great aunt Marion Kitchens (1923-1944), Friendship (McKamie) Community Cemetery, Columbia County, Arkansas 

These best laid plans work great when you know where the cemetery is.  But what if the cemetery listed on the death certificate or in the obituary or in the funeral program seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, or worse, never seemed to have existed at all?

While attending a family reunion in Columbia County, Arkansas, my cousins and I made sure to visit Friendship Community Cemetery near the church where our fathers and grandparents worshipped and played.  We also visited Mount Zion African American Cemetery, where other elders had wanted to be buried with generations of their elders.  At Friendship, I said a prayer over my grandmother Zada Kitchens Robinson's grave, marked simply with a concrete stone from which tin letters had mostly fallen away.

A month after visiting Friendship Cemetery, this weathered concrete stone marking my paternal grandmother's grave was replaced with a true granite marker, engraved with her name, birth year, and death year.

I also wanted to visit the graves of other ancestors interred in cemeteries I've never visited. Topping my list were Smith African American Cemetery (Waldo) where my paternal 2nd great-grandmother Adline Dancer Chambers and several of her children and their families lay, and the Saint James Cemetery, the final resting place for Ardie Chambers Robertson Stringer, Adline's daughter and my paternal great-grandmother.  Ardie's death certificate shows that she died in January 1932 and was buried in Saint James.  Her mother Adline's death certificate shows she passed September 1940 and was buried in Smith.

Smith African American Cemetery was an easy find, located adjacent to the Waldo Cemetery (virtually an exclusive white cemetery) along one of the main roads between Magnolia and Waldo.  It had no sign of its own, but once there, I found it easy to navigate the bucolic setting.  Unfortunately, the previous day's thunderstorms softened and muddied the grounds, limiting access to the full cemetery.  I never found Adline's grave marker which is among the markers catalogued in 

In sharp contrast, Saint James Cemetery seemed to be a figment of my imagination, despite its listing on my grandmother's death certificate.  Repeated Google searches for the cemetery came up empty.  Neither ArkansasGravestones nor Findagrave nor BillionGraves included the cemetery among its listings.  Strike One.

When checking into the local hotel, the front desk clerk was a Robinson, like me. We exchanged ancestors, looking for possible connections but found none.  She described how her Robinsons had lived in an African-American community called Saint James, at the center of which was a church of the same name.  A search of Black churches in Columbia County revealed a Saint James Church nestled alone, along a secluded, wooded country road. The next morning, I drove to the church but found no evidence of a cemetery. Strike Two. 

Chats with family elders who've lived their entire lives in Columbia county, also came up empty.  Strike Three.

But genealogy is not like baseball -- you keep on swinging until all clues are exhausted, and then you swing again. My next up-at-bat had me stepping back and rethinking my strategy.  Instead of searching for a cemetery that didn't want to be found, I started looking for people who were buried in Saint James.  I started a new Google search, and found recent obituaries for several elderly Waldo residents whose final resting place was Saint James (I presume they had wanted to be buried with their elders).  Since the obits did not include an address for Saint James, I called the local newspaper to see if they could point me to the elusive cemetery. No one appeared to know or have heard of the cemetery.  Strike Four.

Surely, Saint James Cemetery was a real place, as it was still actively taking in new burials.  Yet, we were no further along than when we began the search.  I consulted (i.e., whined to) cousins, who pointed me to Cousin Randy, a local funeral director who they said knew all the cemeteries in the county and beyond.  Cousin Randy (it's a small town and he's a cousin by marriage) who didn't hesitate when asked if he knew anything about Saint James Cemetery. He said he knew exactly where Saint James Cemetery is.  Home run!

So, where is Saint James Cemetery?  Turns out that Saint James is the original name of what is now known as Smith African American Cemetery.  Who knew?! Well, Cousin Randy, for one, and likely other local funeral directors.

Lesson learned? Remember to think outside the box when traditional methods don't work out.  Identify all the players, exploring any records created by them.

  • Looking for a shuttered funeral home? Consider that they may have been absorbed by other firms that may have kept the records they inherited. 
  • Looking for a lost cemetery? Consult with funeral homes, and local historical societies that might have compiled a register of area cemeteries.
  • Looking for cemetery interment records? Try to find who may be the caretaker of such records, such as an affiliated church, or an elderly neighbor of the cemetery.

Update:  During my trip, I never found great grandmother Ardie's grave, nor saw markers for her  siblings or her mother Adline.  Rainy weather prevented me from doing anything more than a walk through the front part of the cemetery. I'm looking forward to my next visit 

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