Building Community: Cleaning up Love

“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

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

ETBU Students at work

Wiley College students

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

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.

Cleanup Begins

Boy Scout as Cleanup Begins

After the Cleanup

After the Cleanup

About China Galland

China Galland, M.A., is the prize-winning author of several non-fiction works including "Love Cemetery, Unburying the Secret History of Slaves" (HarperOne), "Longing for Darkness, Tara and the Black Madonna" (Penguin). She’s completing a documentary film, "Resurrecting Love," about an East Texas African American community’s struggle to reclaim Love Cemetery, the historic burial ground they own. "The Bond Between Women, A Journey to Fierce Compassion" (Riverhead/Penguin), was chosen as one of the best five books on Spirituality by the annual “Books For a Better Life Award.” Galland has been a Professor in Residence at the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, the largest consortium of Christian schools of theology in the U.S, as well as a Research Associate, and adjunct faculty. “Art, Darkness, and the Womb of God,” the graduate level intensive, grew out of her pioneering work on the Divine Feminine cross-culturally. She has been affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union for over 20 years. A riveting storyteller and public speaker, Galland has lectured at Harvard University, Columbia, Cornell, Bowling Green University, and Prescott College among others. She led pilgrimages to the Divine Feminine in Nepal, India, France and Spain, appeared on “Good Morning America,” Bloomberg TV, PBS, NPR, and PRI's "To the Best of Our Knowledge."
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2 Responses to Building Community: Cleaning up Love

  1. You make Love Cemetery come alive, as people reconnect with their ancestors. Very moving piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Louise. I tell everyone about your superb book and about your discovery that in Poland, non-Jewish Poles and Jews are restoring cemeteries together as a “strategy for reconciliation.” That reconciliation strategy, as I’m calling it for lack of a better word, includes “unburying” history. While in Poland it may be the reclaimed history of Polish Jews, chances are that lost history also includes narratives from the Romani too.
      What’s surfacing at Love Cemetery are oral fragments of Native American histories, traces of tribes that 19th century U.S. forces tried to obliterate. The Caddo Confederacy was comprised of 25 tribes, some of whom were lost to history, and some who survived. Though I’ve never met them, an archaeologist told me that he’d met people nearby in East Texas who self-identify as Black Caddos.
      I continue to informed by and excited about your research and the extraordinary people you befriended in Poland. The theater work you write of was breathtaking!
      Most importantly, perhaps, were the remarks of your recently deceased great publisher friend who spoke of people who working on cemetery restoration simply because it was “the right thing to do,” and because this is “what it takes to be human.”
      Honoring the dead. Paying our respects, yes.
      Here I’m preparing to read a story to my grandson Eli’s second grade class for Halloween morning, a week from today, amidst fundraising to finish our documentary and continuing to refine the script.
      All Hallowed’s Eve is around the corner as we all know — that ancient Celtic feast I like to remind and tease some of my stricter Christian friends. Halloween was surely part of an earlier harvest cycle of feasts celebrating nature and the dying of the plants. Part of the “harvest” in Poland seems to also be the wonderful history you and others are returning to us all, the myriad glorious details such as the color of the temple ceiling — sky blue….
      Thank you for the feast you’ve served. It continues to feed me and I hope others as well.
      China

      Like

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