Group seeks help for cemetery

Published 11:25 pm Friday, May 27, 2011

Oaklawn: Local citizens George Richards, in foreground, and Albert Jones are part of a group that is working to revive the Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown.

Oaklawn Cemetery, tucked away in a corner lot near city hall, holds the final resting places of some of Suffolk’s most prominent black citizens.

There lies Moses A. Riddick Jr., who founded the Independent Voters League and later was elected to the Nansemond County Board of Supervisors.

Nearby is J.W. Richardson, who was president of Phoenix Bank and custodian at the American Bank.

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Then there’s the Rev. W.W. Gaines, a powerful preacher who led First Baptist Church Mahan Street for 22 years and established the Nansemond Collegiate Institute, the first school of higher education for black students in the area.

But these men’s graves — and hundreds of others — wouldn’t even be visible if it weren’t for the efforts of a group that has been working to keep the cemetery in shape.

“I used to play back there as a kid,” said Tracy Stewart, who was raised on First Avenue. Recently, he passed by and saw that the grass stood over his head.

“And I’m six feet tall,” he said.

Stewart took it upon himself to call somebody about it. One of his first calls was to Councilman Charles Parr, who told him the city didn’t own the cemetery.

Apparently, nobody knows who owns it. A title search turned up an illegible deed dating back to the 1800s. Whoever does own it does not keep the grass cut.

Most of the graves in the cemetery near the city’s human resources building date from the 1800s or early- to mid-1900s — though one burial was performed there last month. Besides the main lot, there are three more tiers that step down into a ravine where others are buried.

Most of the graves are simply cement vaults, but there are some traditional-style monuments. There likely are many graves without any markings at all, says George Richards, who is involved in the effort to save the cemetery.

After Stewart got involved, the Western Tidewater Regional Jail has brought inmates out to cut the grass, with supplies purchased by Stewart and others. Stewart has since cut it twice to maintain it.

At a recent meeting, the discussion turned toward setting up a nonprofit group that could help care for the cemetery. There are more gravesites that could be used, and the sale of them could provide income. Stewart hopes to recruit lawn care companies to volunteer to cut the grass.

“There’s a lot to be done,” Stewart said.

He has set up another meeting on June 13 at 6:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 112 Mahan St., to discuss the issue. Any family members of people buried there, church groups, funeral homes, civic leagues, community service organizations or individuals who want to help are welcome to attend.

“The more, the merrier,” Stewart said. “We don’t need their money as much as we need their brains.”

For more information, call Stewart at 434-6713.