SHOWCASING LOUISIANA: Group uncovers forgotten plantation cemeteries

Armed with a machete and a sense of responsibility, Martin’s crusade to save these graves is infectious.

SHOWCASING LOUISIANA: Group works to uncover forgotten plantation cemeteries

WEST BATON ROUGE PARISH, La. (WAFB) - There’s something hidden in the sugarcane fields of West Baton Rouge Parish. Just beyond seemingly random tree lines are the graves of thousands of people. Many were slaves that worked the earth where they now lie. Others are their descendants. One group is working to make sure they’re never forgotten.

Debbie Martin runs the Westside Cemetery Preservation Association. She recently took me to a handful of hidden cemeteries she’s cataloged over the last several years.

“If you look across the land, and you see all the ripples in the ground, that indicates burials,” she said as we stood a few yards off River Road in dense vegetation.

Poplar Grove cemetery is just a five-minute drive from Port Allen City Hall. The old church that once stood nearby is long gone. Like most plantation cemeteries, Poplar Grove now sits on private property, flanked by industry and agriculture. There are no signs and no fences, yet there are likely hundreds of graves. The oldest known burials date back to the early 1900s. Most are unmarked, and some stones are handwritten. More recent graves have traditional headstones.

Graham Ulkins and Debbie Martin stand in Poplar Grove cemetery.
Graham Ulkins and Debbie Martin stand in Poplar Grove cemetery. (Source: WAFB)

“You have quite a few veterans in this cemetery. World War I and World War II veterans,” Martin explained.

She’s made it her mission to find out everything she can about the souls resting there. Several members of the Grimes family are among the 31 graves she’s added from Poplar Grove to findagrave.com.

But that’s just one of at least 17 plantation cemeteries Martin has documented.

“With all of the African-American cemeteries in this parish, we've documented over 3,500 burials,” she said.

She believes there are many more burial grounds yet to be uncovered, and many permanently lost to Mother Nature or industrial development.

“I'm working with other groups, and we're trying to form a nationwide database of these cemeteries and the burials so families can trace their ancestors,” Martin explained.

Thousands of cars pass daily through the interchange where US-190 meets LA-415. Most drivers have no idea they’re just feet away from St. Catherine Cemetery, which sits in that corner, shrouded by overgrown trees.

The same goes for Chamberlin cemetery further north off 415. Silvery cemetery sits in a soybean field off Rosedale Rd. The vegetation there was so dense on our recent trip that we couldn’t even go beyond the tree line.

Chamberlin cemetery off LA-415.
Chamberlin cemetery off LA-415. (Source: WAFB)

But others are in better shape thanks to Martin and her volunteers.

Orange Grove and Ashland cemeteries are now fully owned by St. Mark Baptist Church. It’s a feat that recently helped get the church onto the National Register of Historic Places.

“Most people forget ‘em,” said LeeDell Woods Jr, who serves on the Board of Deacons. “They don’t want to forget ‘em, but time passes.”

Many former St. Mark members are buried in the two cemeteries along with their families. New burials are still allowed.

St. Mark Baptist Church.
St. Mark Baptist Church. (Source: WAFB)

It was in Ashland cemetery where Woods first met Martin.

"Ms. Martin just showed up with boots on, and she proceeded to go throughout… I said, ‘Ms. Martin, you're gonna get bitten.’ She's just a brave lady," he recalled.

Armed with a machete and a sense of responsibility, Martin’s crusade to save these graves is infectious.

“There's artisans in this cemetery, brick builders in this cemetery, talented people in this cemetery (who helped build Port Allen), and their stories should be told, so I joined her group," Woods said.

The Association organizes clean-up days and works to spread their values of dignity and respect for all people – regardless of their status in life.

“It moves you to think all of these people in this cemetery,” Martin said as she stood in Ashland. “They have a story to tell. They lived life just like all of us lived life, and this is what happens in the end."

But she and Woods both worry about what may happen when they’re no longer around.

“I'm 65. I don't know how long I got on this earth, but we need somebody else to take the torch after a while. I can do it for a little while, but other people, other families that live in this area need to step it up," Woods said.

“Many of these (cemeteries) we could never restore,” Martin added. “We're fighting a losing battle most of the time, but that doesn't mean we should allow them to be destroyed."

A grave in Orange Grove cemetery.
A grave in Orange Grove cemetery. (Source: WAFB)

That’s why they’re making noise now. They hope to teach younger generations what lies beyond those tree lines, and who lies below the brush.

The group has had a bit of success in the Louisiana Legislature, helping pass a bill in 2018 that created the Slavery Ancestral Burial Grounds Preservation Commission.

At the very least, Martin wants a sign placed at each cemetery explaining who lies there.

For more information or to volunteer your time, contact Debbie Martin through the group’s Facebook page, or by emailing savethegraveswbrp@gmail.com.

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