“No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”
– Eduardo Galeano
Friends and family wrote and called me about the Love Cemetery cleanup this past Saturday, September 27th, 2014, in East Texas near the Louisiana border.
Wiley College Students at Love
Archie Rison, one of our new volunteers, drove 400 miles round trip from outside of Dallas with his friend Obadiah Johnson, to help. It was one of the few cleanups that I’ve missed in many years. My cousins Philip and Sharon Verhalen were there with some of the Boy Scouts. Though Philip is the Scout Master, the Scouts who come do it strictly as volunteers. No merit badge. Over a dozen students from nearby Wiley College came, as well as a handful of students from East Texas Baptist University. ETBU faculty member, Dr. Sandy Hoover, chair of their history department, joined in again too. Members of the Marshall community, including one of Scout’s mothers came too. Without the vigilance and hard work of the Love Cemetery Burial Association, especially the President Doris Vittatoe, nothing can happen at Love, but that’s another story for another time. The behind the scenes work of organizing cleanups, sending in certified mail notices, and so forth goes on all year. Richard Johnson, Doris Vittatoe’s brother, moved back to Marshall a few years ago and has been a stalwart helper ever since. Archie wrote to tell me how it went: “I am so passionate about preserving the graves of my own ancestors that I regard helping at Love Cemetery as a part of my journey to show my appreciation. Though I’m not related to anyone buried at Love, I feel an attachment to these brave souls. They lived in a time when hope was a complicated task tied up with just staying alive. The least I can do is show up and help. Maybe this will influence others to do the same. Though I drove 400 miles round trip, I would drive even further for such a cause. “I was especially impressed by the students from Wiley College who turned out to help, there were a least a dozen of them. Remember NaQuita Elmore?” he asked. “She was with us last April when we came out to Love with Ysaye Barnwell (insert link? To video?). “NaQuita was the one who walked over a mile to find the cemetery last April. She led a handful of other Wiley students who hadn’t been there before either. She was just so determined to find us! They were all members of Wiley’s choir. They started singing while they walked and it turned out to be such a great experience that this past Saturday, she suggested that they walk again, and started up singing. “Once they got to the cemetery and started clearing the graves, they just kept right on singing. It was something! It was like being at a choir recital except it was outside we were all working together. It also reminded me of what I’ve heard and read about how people in slavery kept singing all day long, continuously, while they were out working the fields.”
ETBU Students at work
4-5-14, Wiley College students left to right: NaQuita Elmore, Marcus Shelton, Kylan Pew, Cameron Spearman, and Starsha, on either side of Ohio Taylor’s headstone. Taylor was born in 1834 and died in 1918. He is Mrs. Doris Vittatoe’s great-grandfather. Vittatoe is the President of The Love Cemetery Burial Association. Photo by Archie Rison
New (to us) headstone found during 2013 cleanup
9-28-14, Sunday, the next morning, I had a chance to talk to NaQuita again, the young woman from Wiley who’d gotten her fellow students together last April, when Ysaye Barnwell was here. NaQuita shepherded half a dozen of her fellow students out the road to Love and surprised us. There’d been a mixup on timing and we’d thought we’d missed them but they were not about to get left out. Just before choir practice on the 28th, NaQuita and I talked by phone so that I could hear more about this fall cleanup and what it meant to her. “Finding our way to Love in the spring was humbling. It pushed me to want to share this kind of experience with more of the Wiley students this fall. “You can see a thousand movies, but they can’t give you the actual experience. Walking the road to Love, we thought about how things were for our ancestors, what conditions they lived with. They didn’t have good shoes like we do. For them, if their feet hurt while they were walking, there was nothing they could do about that. I started up a song as we walked and before we knew it, we were at Love. We got busy, picked up a tool and started to work, clearing the graves. What if working in the fields was all you could do, everyday, in the heat? Think about that. A lot of people had no choice. Singing took your mind off your work. Imagine what those songs did for our people. It became a really great experience, a great bonding time with other Wiley students, with ETBU, and the Scouts. It showed unity, coming together, and what can be done when everybody joins in and helps. One of the ETBU students — Elizabeth — a white student, joined in as we were working and singing ‘Down by the Riverside.’ Racism still exists in our society, but then and there, it disappeared, color didn’t matter. Being out at that cemetery is so amazing. There was a shot gun barrel, a piece of a sewing machine leg left as grave markers. My mind was racing, wondering what happened during those times. It made me want to go find more of this history, grab other students, make flyers, let more people know about Love. We’re all coming back.” Love has taken on a life and an energy of its own. The process of making our documentary has helped seed a larger, inter-generational community. Reclaiming history, watering our roots, and singing are essential to it all.
Boy Scout as Cleanup Begins
After the Cleanup