Ohio University Students Find “Lost” African-American Cemetery

Ohio University Southern student Michelle Wellman under a canopy of pines that shades Sacred Hills Cemetery. "We felt that it was time to honor them."
Ohio University Southern student Michelle Wellman under a canopy of pines that shades Sacred Hills Cemetery. "We felt that it was time to honor them."

People in Lawrence County, Ohio know a little bit more about a few of their ancestors – thanks to a group of students from Ohio University Southern. What started out as a folknography project two years ago has ended with the discovery of an African American cemetery from the early 1900s.

It’s hard to believe these hills and hollows in Lawrence County – within sight of the Ohio River – were once heavily industrialized. But according to David Lucas a professor at Ohio University Southern this area was bustling just after the turn of the 20th Century with pig iron production and mining.

“They needed workers,” says Lucas. “And so they went to Cincinnati or the Cincinnati area and recruited some African Americans to come up here and work in the iron industry, drive the teams – they still used wagons in those days and they needed teamsters – they needed people to work in the cold mines. They needed people to work in the smelting operations. And they recruited these folk and brought them in here and put them in a little hollow which is just off this ridge down here. It’s a quaint little place where they set up this sort of mining camp and these families lived there.

The rocky creek still flows through the hollow but evidence of the camp is long gone, as are memories of the 16 to 18 black families who lived here. Some of the people were claimed quickly by the great pandemic.

“In 1917 and 1918 the Spanish Flu swept through southern Ohio and killed thousands of people,” Lucas says. “But it also swept through this little hollow down here and these folk died. They brought them up here on the ridge and they buried them here in the cold, rainy, snowy ground of what we now call Sacred Hill Cemetery.”

It was a hasty but dignified burial, according to Lucas. A few roughhewn headstones were erected. Years later the land nearby was strip-mined several times, then it became a landfill. When folknography students heard their may be a forgotten cemetery in the area, they began to ask questions. Jennifer Dadosky was among a small army who went door-to-door.

“If they couldn’t answer our questions they could always say, Mrs. So-In-So down the street – the white house the green shutters – go knock on her door.’ And we would go do that. No answer? We’d go to the house next to it.

Slowly, family names from the hollow began to emerge – Gordon, Mills, Kelly. Often, according to student Michelle Wellman, all a descendent could provide was encouragement.

“Many people would say ‘No, I don’t know anything.’ Mr. Gordon said ‘I’m sure I have a relative that’s buried up there but I know nothing about it.’ But we appreciate what you’re doing, it’s wonderful.’”

They found a map with the boundaries of a cemetery scribbled in. Ground penetrating radar was brought to the ridge and 12 unmarked graves were pinpointed.

“They weren’t buried in boxes, they didn’t have caskets,” Lucas says. “But they were buried, according to these sonographs we have, with their hands folded, face up, laid out with special care, wrapped in some sort of garments. It was a very sobering moment.”

Still, students had no clue about the identities of the people in the graves except one according to Michelle Wellman.

“There was a lady who came in, she had a family Bible with a child’s name in it. And she said, I think this is my aunt. I think she’s buried there.’ She went back and did a little more research, and she said, ‘Yes, she was 7 years old, she’s buried there.’ In the family Bible it says “She died along the way.” That’s all it says.”

Now thanks to Ohio University students and a local monument company Mary Lou Mills has a more lasting headstone. Those around her – still unidentified – are marked with stones that say “youth” or “adult grave.” David Lucas says he’s proud that his students gave more of themselves than they had to. Melissa Wellman says she and the others were compelled to find the 12 lost souls on a Lawrence County ridge.

“It was almost like a mystery that needed to be solved. These people were lost to society except for the few people who remembered them. And we just felt that it was time to honor them and it just sparked something and I just wanted to work on this – wanted to give these people recognition.

It’s ironic in a way that a group of people who slept in anonymity for so many years with strip mining and landfilling going on just as few yards away now should be found in such an idyllic setting.

“They’re high here on this ridge overlooking some of the most beautiful real estate in Lawrence County and the Ohio River which in itself is very beautiful,” says Lucas. “And as you can tell it’s one of the most peaceful places that I’ve ever been to in the world. And maybe this is what God had intended all along.”

Ohio University Southern folknography professor David Lucas hopes to add a historical marker near Sacred Hills Cemetery.

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