Mansfield News

Volunteers uncover history

The gravestone of Lizer Wilkns was discovered during a clean-up of the Mansfield Community Cemetery.
The gravestone of Lizer Wilkns was discovered during a clean-up of the Mansfield Community Cemetery.

The old stone lay nestled under layers of leaves and dirt, waiting like a time capsule for someone to bring it back to life.

On Good Friday, someone did.

Close to 100 volunteers from Bethlehem Baptist Church and First United Methodist spread out across Mansfield Community Cemetery to hack away at the encroaching privets, scoop up piles of decaying leaves and discover pieces of history lost for decades.

The cemetery was formerly known as the Old Colored Cemetery, separated by a fence from the white cemetery since the 1870s.

On Good Friday, there was no segregation as people of several races helped clean up the historic cemetery on Cemetery Road, and find at least six graves that had been buried in time.

“I was raking leaves and I saw something,” said Priscilla Sanchez. “It gave me chills. I’m going to say it’s been there quite a long time.”

Sanchez uncovered a slender piece of concrete with the letters W.A.R. engraved on the top on the south side of the cemetery, which had been inaccessible due to brush and trees. She doesn’t know if it marked a grave, but she and the other volunteers suspect that it did at one time.

“It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?” she said.

An hour later, Susan Luttrell let out a cry “We found one!”

Luttrell, director of serving and outreach for First Methodist, was on her hands and knees scrubbing away dirt from an old gravestone embedding in the clay dirt. Luttrell and other volunteers washed away decades of grime to reveal the name Lizer Wilkns, wife of Tom Wilkns, Sept. 1, 1860-Jan. 9, 1899.

Watching Luttrell, who is white, volunteer VanDella Menifee got tears in her eyes.

“Years ago, you would not see all of us working together,” said Menifee, who is black. “You would not see someone of her stature cleaning the gravestone of an African-American woman and with such care. She wants to know who she is so we can know who she is.

“It’s almost emotional,” Menifee said. “My grandparents lived to their 90s and they experienced a lot. To see this... Change is good.”

Cleaning the cemetery on Good Friday has significance for Luttrell, she said.

“It reflects back to Mary and Martha, to the earliest Christians, who cleaned his tomb,” Luttrell said. “We remember Jesus’ sacrifice and death. What better way to honor that?”

Barnell Mitchell had tears in his eyes for another reason. For a decade, the 79-year-old cared for the cemetery by himself.

“They let the black cemeteries go down,” said Mitchell, who has family buried in the cemetery. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. I would mow and trim it in a day’s time, all year.”

He arrived late on Friday morning after a doctor’s appointment and was stunned by what he saw. People swarmed over the cemetery, filling a Dumpster and then cutting another Dumpster’s worth of brush and trees.

“I like to fell out,” he said.

Members of Bethlehem Baptist Church cleaned the cemetery for years on Good Friday, he said, but then the tradition faded. The church took official ownership of the cemetery in 2011 and began caring for it, Mitchell said. He said there are even more graves that have not been found, hidden under the brush on the north side of the cemetery.

“I used to come down here and dig graves,” Mitchell said. “Most of them are related to me.”

James Leggs, the church’s liasion for the cemetery, said there are plans to hire a company to survey the 2.5-acre cemetery to see where the graves are. Many of them will be easier to find after the massive Good Friday clean-up.

“This is amazing,” said Bobby Jackson, 73, whose father, grandparents, uncle and aunt are buried in the cemetery. “People getting together. The black man didn’t have any decency in living or in death. To see the community coming together to clean it up is amazing.”