MARTINSBURG, W. Va. (WDVM) — A historic African American cemetery was formally recognized in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
What once was a forgotten and destroyed part of the Green Hill Cemetery in Martinsburg has been formally recognized as the Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery.
Gloria Carter is the president of the non-profit organization which was formed in 2017. A small group of Martinsburg residents approached the local NAACP chapter looking for volunteers to continue the clean-up and restoration process after the cemetery was originally found in the 1970s.
“This was a dump. I mean literally, people dumped their trash here. We took out rugs, we took out tires, we took out metal. We have taken out everything possible that you can imagine in a dump.”
The cemetery was in terrible shape before volunteers began to clean up the area that had been neglected for so long. Jasmine Rountree is the former president of the organization and was hurt that the area was mistreated.
“It hurt honestly… Because I think about ‘this is my grandmother… My direct ancestors who were buried out here and their burial ground was used as a dumping site. This is my direct ancestors or if this was me buried out here, you know, I would want my burial ground to be taken care of with pride and dignity as the same as anywhere else.”
Before the restoration project started, Rountree wanted to research what other African American cemeteries had done to preserve and restore their burial grounds. She was disappointed and hurt to discover that the poor treatment of African American and slave burial grounds are not uncommon.
“As I was researching, I found that many African American cemeteries across the state of Virginia and other places are also not very well taken care of. And you know, that was also hurtful to realize that African American cemeteries have been forgotten not just here in Martinsburg but in a lot of other places.”
Rose Carter was born and raised in Martinsburg and regularly visited the Green Hill cemetery, but never knew about the African American section until later on in life. Segregation in cemeteries was a very common practice and when the Green Hill Cemetery was established in 1854 and encompassed a slave burial ground, a section was reserved for the burial of African Americans, as they were not permitted to be buried in the main part of the cemetery. Because of this segregation. the Green Hill Cemetery and the African American section are divided by a small concrete wall.
She explained that she has family buried in the cemetery and would lay flowers on the graves of family members once a month.
“[I] Had no idea this was a cemetery. We were always told it was the city dump. And even when it was wooded and if you could get in here, you could not see a gravestone or anything… Because of the debris and the trash that was here.”
The group of volunteers has been working to restore the site where many were buried in unmarked graves and usually in nothing more than a blanket. Gloria Carter explained that many of the people buried in the cemetery were not buried in coffins, but wrapped in nothing more than a blanket. Because many of the people were slaves, they were also not given any kind of headstone or grave marking that would allow others to identify them later. She also stated that because the bodies were buried without coffins, volunteers often find bones while working on the cemetery.
Carter hopes this restoration allows for the Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery to connect with the descendants of people buried here.”
“We would love to find people that are related to those that are buried here. We have printed some of the names out in the paper, but so far, no one has come forward. So we really don’t know if there are any still around.”
To learn more about the Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery, visit their Facebook page or email GHHAAC@gmail.com.