Cemetery repairs needed

Published 10:52 pm Saturday, November 21, 2009

James Stokes was from Virginia, he served in the military, and he was most likely a Christian.

However, that is all the information one can tell from his gravestone. His rank, dates of service and even dates of birth and death are buried along with him.

Stokes’ is one of the many gravestones sinking into the ground at the Rosemont Cemetery, on Rosemont Avenue between South Eighth and South Tenth streets. His gravestone, of the trademark oblong white style reserved for veterans, bears an engraving in the shape of a cross at the top, then his name and state. The rest of the stone is covered by the soft dirt and thick layer of leaves that abounds in the cemetery.

Stokes’ sinking gravestone is one of the more minor problems at the burial ground.

Soil erosion means that cement vaults whose tops were previously even with the ground now are almost completely above ground. Broken stones and monuments litter the ground. Shattered glass is underfoot at every turn. A dying tree on the west side of the cemetery could uproot the grave underneath and break its stone — one of the few still intact — when it topples over.

“This is an insult,” said Quinton Franklin, a local community activist and member of the Rosemont/Lloyd Place Civic League. “It’s a disgrace to black history.”

Among the worst issues are innumerable unmarked graves, discernible only by the mounds and depressions in the ground, and one particular cement vault with gaping holes on top, revealing a pool of water and leaves inside on top of, presumably, a casket.

Franklin says a worse problem — visible bones — began rising from a grave several years ago, before the plot was mysteriously covered with a fresh layer of cement.

“This has been a battle they’ve been fighting since the ‘80s,” said Franklin, referring to the condition of the historic cemetery. Most marked graves on the lot date from the first half of the 1900s.

Only a handful of graves in the cemetery are maintained regularly by surviving family members, Franklin said. He believes most of the deceased were black, though poor whites could also have been buried there, Franklin said.

“It’s just not about because blacks are buried here — this is about honoring our war veterans,” Franklin said. “It should be a disgrace to the city to allow it to be disgraced like this.”

The city, however, says it is not its responsibility to maintain privately owned cemeteries. It does maintain Holly Lawn and Cedar Hill cemeteries, which are owned by the city, according to spokeswoman Debbie George.

Inquiries by the Suffolk News-Herald about the condition of the cemetery prompted the Department of Planning and Community Development to send an inspector to check on the property, George said. A report on the findings was not available at press time, but George said the city can follow a legal process to require compliance with city code if violations are spotted.

Efforts by community groups to figure out who owns the cemetery have been unsuccessful, Franklin said. A search on the City Assessor’s online database turned up no properties listed on Rosemont Avenue.

Various community groups have tried to clean up the cemetery, but they don’t have the time or the resources to give it the attention it needs, Franklin said.

“One time isn’t enough,” Franklin said. “It needs what you call perpetual care.”

It wouldn’t take much to take care of the cemetery, Franklin said. Some fill dirt, monument repairs and simple markers for unmarked graves would be a good start.

“I want to get involved,” Franklin said. “We need to start working together.”

Franklin urged people who have ideas on how to help the Rosemont Cemetery, or who know of other poorly maintained cemeteries in the city, to call him at 334-1548.