Doing the right thing at Oaklawn

Published 9:47 pm Thursday, August 7, 2014

A disconcerting sight recently welcomed Calvin Franklin as he searched for the graves of relatives in downtown’s Oaklawn Cemetery.

Near the back of the long-neglected cemetery, he noticed something odd about the grave of a World War II veteran who died in 1989. The concrete slab that serves as a marker for that grave was tilted down near the head of the grave and tilted up out of the ground near the foot, exposing the casket underneath.

Water could be seen in the grave, and the casket appeared to have rust on it.

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Unsettled by the discovery, Franklin called me to see if I could do anything — perhaps, he thought, put a story in the paper to let the person’s relatives know about it.

I met him there a couple of weeks ago so he could lead me to the grave. After seeing the same disturbing sight myself, I told him I would see what I could do.

It wasn’t my first time in the cemetery. I started doing stories about it around 2011, when Suffolk native Tracy Stewart visited and found grass taller than he is. After an unsuccessful effort to figure out who owns the cemetery, he started a grassroots effort to try to keep it up, which still goes on today.

Various organizations — including a group from Dominion Virginia Power and church groups during Operation Inasmuch during the last several years — have worked in the cemetery to keep things looking nice and record the locations of graves. LW’s Lawn Service cuts the grass once a month for free, Stewart said.

Established in the late 1800s, Oaklawn holds graves of some of Suffolk’s most respected and well-known black ministers, bankers, public officials and businessmen. It is located just east of the city’s Human Resources building at 440 Market St.

After my trip to the cemetery, I looked up the veteran’s obituary on our microfilm. It told me the funeral home that handled the original funeral was Peebles Funeral Home, which is still in existence.

I gave them a call, and Rhonda Peebles-Holland told me she would check on it. She visited the grave that afternoon and told me she would have it fixed. She called back the next day to tell me it had been done. I made another trip to the cemetery this Thursday and saw it was so — the casket is no longer visible under the concrete slab at any point around the grave.

The point to this story? There are plenty of people in town, like Calvin Franklin and Tracy Stewart and the other volunteers, who are trying to do the right thing by the cemetery, to which they have no obligation other than that of a concerned citizen. There are also businesses in town, like Peebles Funeral Home, that are willing to take immediate action to correct the problems that a group of volunteers with rakes and mowers cannot fix.

If only more people — such as the owner of the cemetery, who still seems to be missing in action — were willing to do as much.

If you’re interested in helping at the cemetery, call Stewart at 434-6713.