On Saturday, September 27th, 2014, the Love Cemetery Burial Association
is coordinating one of our regular cleanups. Family & friends, Boy Scouts,
students and faculty from nearby Wiley College and East Texas Baptist
University, will be coming together to help us maintain Love Cemetery.
Volunteers turn up from unlikely places. In April, the American airlines
ticket agent from whom I bought my ticket to Dallas drove 300 miles
round trip to help us clean up Love Cemetery. She has a nephew at Wiley
College and was wanted to help the minute she heard Wiley College was
involved. Wiley students including Wiley Choir members, Wiley Debaters,
Nate Parker Scholars and others who feel moved to help.
This coming Saturday, though I won’t be there, we’ll be joined by our friend
Archie Rison and his colleague, Obadiah Johnson. The two of them are
driving in from out of town to help. Both Mr. Rison and Mr. Johnson are
originally from Nacogdoches.
Archie came to Love Cemetery with us, April, 2014, when Ysaye Barnwell,
formerly of the legendary group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” joined us for
our cleanup. You can see and listen to her singing and ours on this 3-
minute video excerpt from last spring: https://vimeo.com/95810508
Ysaye’s retired from “Sweet Honey” and is now focused on building
community through singing. We benefited richly from her leadership. It
didn’t hurt to have members of the Wiley College’s choir with us that day
as well as East Texas Baptist University’s football team. They carry tunes,
not only footballs, corny as that may be to say, it’s true. Family and friends
filled out our crew and chorus you can see on the clip.
Archie’s ideas about a restive retirement were quickly transformed by the
work on his own family’s burial ground. Suddenly he was on a passionate
crusade to maintain, preserve, and restore African American cemeteries.
His Ancestors became the root and cause for his excitement. Everyone’s.
Genealogy has swept the country as a primary interest providing
unexpected connections for people. Sometimes families discover their
background is more mixed than they realized.
This summer Archie attended a first reunion for the black and white
members of his large family. His cousin, Sharon Cranford, wrote the book,
Kinship Concealed, the Amish-Mennonite – African American Family
Connections on their family background.
Roots. Ancestors are the root system. In Resurrecting Love, you’ll hear
Nate Parker and Brian Favors speak eloquently about that basic need we all
have to know who and where we come from.
Archie has helped restore four African American cemeteries in
Nacogdoches, so far. One of those four cemeteries he worked on is
Fellowship Cemetery. This is where Obadiah Johnson comes in. The
ground-penetrating scan done at Fellowship Cemetery revealed that there
were 115 unmarked graves in that cemetery.
Obadiah Johnson went home and made 115 cemetery headstones.
Obadiah Johnson making headstones and barbecue in his backyard
Archie helped him. Each stone says “Unmarked” so that visitors know that
someone whose name has been lost to history is buried there.
A story from The Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel
August 17th, 2014 by Jeri Mills
‘A Labor of Love’
“Samuel Johnson once said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats
someone who can do him absolutely no good.” This saying applies to the
story I share in today’s column.
“Archie Rison and his friend Obadiah Johnson are both natives of
Nacogdoches and now reside in the Dallas area. Rison, Johnson and his
wife stopped by … to deliver some research materials to me at my request.
They explained they would make this visit brief because they had to get
back to Dallas.
“Mrs. Obadiah Johnson, a charming woman whom I met for the first time,
admitted she was tired and had made the trip with Archie and her husband
at the last minute. She stated at the time of the planned trip her husband
did not feel well but he was determined to make this trip with Archie and
asked her to drive.
“Both men had trucks loaded with cement grave markers they would
deliver and place in Nacogdoches’ Fellowship Cemetery for unmarked
graves. Being the inquisitive person I am, I continued to interrogate until I
had the complete story.
Handmade headstone for “UNKNOWN”
Made by Obadiah Johnson with assistance from Archie Rison
Summer 2014, Fellowship Cemetery, Nacogdoches, Texas
“At that moment I knew I wanted to share this story because I like sharing
stories about people who do good deeds and do not seek recognition for it.
I was able to piece together that Rison and Johnson took it on their own to
make markers to place on unmarked graves in the Fellowship Cemetery.
Rison quickly said that Johnson made the cement markers in his backyard.
“Johnson quickly said, “Archie is so involved and passionate about
cemeteries and it rubbed off on me.”
“This brings me to Samuel Johnson’s statement above.
“People who are in unmarked graves certainly won’t and cannot know
that finally someone will recognize that, “I am here.” The reasons for the
unmarked graves are just as varied as the people who occupy them. The
bottom line is Rison and Johnson had nothing to gain from this project
but the satisfaction in getting it done. When I called Rison to ask for more
information, he hesitated and said quickly, “There were others involved
and if you are going to tell the story then I want them to get credit also.”
“Dr. Chester “Chet” Walker and Dr. George Avery were key figures from
SFA who were instrumental in using a GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to
locate unmarked graves. As I understand, the instrument can detect items
underground identified as human remains.
“According to Rison, “After the scanning was completed, temporary spikes
were later replaced with the permanent cement headstones mostly made
by Obadiah Johnson in his backyard. Both men admitted they got needed
help in delivering and placing 115 markers identified as “unknown.” Ethel
Johnson, Bobby Haynes and the Rev. Ellis Chatman from Dallas, and Billy
Fowler and Roy Washington from Nacogdoches assisted with this project.
“Folks, I am personally impressed and grateful for all the people who
volunteered for this project. Johnson and Rison, I am grateful to you and
others who helped for loading up your trucks several times, getting the
equipment and markers here and placing them on unmarked graves at
“From personal experiences when I do for others, I get a certain amount of
satisfaction in return. Some say it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. The more
I think about why we do for others, the more I feel another column coming
on for next week.
“I would like for us to ask whether we do for others and expect them to
return the favor. That is the wrong reason. Do we do good deeds and make
sure others know about it and seek their praise….?
“When I asked Archie Rison why he did it he said, ‘This project was a labor
of love. The ticket is paid in full. The fact that we could do this for our
ancestors was pay enough.’”