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2/13/2005 Cemetery uncovered: Providence Cemetery receives a clean up

By STEPHEN FARRIS/Daily Sun Staff

Gone but not forgotten ... rest in peace ... in loving memory of ...

These words can be found on at least one tombstone in just about any cemetery, but the words have not held true for at least one cemetery ... at least it hasn't been so for a long while.

According to local archeologist Bill Young, Providence Missionary Baptist Cemetery (an African-American cemetery) was probably established sometime in the mid to late 1880's, with the most recent tombstone dated 1973.

Sometime between that date (or even before then) to present day, the cemetery was overtaken by trees, bushes, cedars and sometimes cattle even found their way onto the gravesites.

Vandals have taken their toll on the cemetery as well, leaving many tombstones unrecognizable, destroyed, and worse yet, missing. Vandals have also used tombstones for target practice. Even the main gates have come up missing leaving the cemetery open for vehicles to make their way in and possibly cause more damage.

Young said Bruce McManus, vice-chair for the Navarro County Historical Commission, went to Providence with his grandfather during the last couple of years to research the names on some of the tombstones that were still left in the cemetery. They were able to find only 22 markers with names on them, most of which were hidden in the thick growth from bushes and cedars. McManus had to crawl through the bushes and cedars to reach some of the tombstones just to make out the names of the people buried there. Other graves were simply marked with stones or bricks.
Only one other person, Malvin Keathley, attempted to locate tombstones before McManus. Keathley was able to find only five markers during his search back in the '80s.

"After searching through the county death certificates, and from what has been found so far, we know there are at least 200 people buried in the cemetery," Young said. "Because of the growth we haven't been able to plot gravesites."

Death certificates in Navarro County started in 1903. Between 1903 through 1910, in was very rare to see the name of the cemetery a person was buried in.

Recently Young and his landscaping crew decided to take on the task of cleaning up the cemetery, taking nearly a week to accomplish clearing out thousands of trees and brush, but leaving the larger Post Oak trees.

During the cleanup, Young found scattered remains of broken window glass near the location where the old Providence Missionary Baptist Church and school sat. The church and school were both housed in the same building.

"It's not clear when the church and school building was built, or for that matter, when it ceased to exist," Young said. "I'm gathering up as much of the glass as possible for testing and the results should come back with a date to within five years or closer as to when the structure existed."

Young said at least 63 graves have been plotted since the clean-up with many more left to be located. At least 10 of those graves are veterans from World War I, World War II and Korea. The vast majority of the graves are marked between 1910 through 1940. Since then there has been a decline of burials in the cemetery.

A new sign has been ordered and will soon be erected by the Navarro County Historical Commission at the cemetery.

"We'd like to see some of the families possibly form an association for the upkeep of the cemetery," Young said. "If no one steps forward, the cemetery will more than likely end up like it was before."

Young said prior to 1996, and because of loopholes in state laws, most old cemeteries were bulldozed with tombstones thrown away.

"A cemetery is never abandoned as long as people are buried there in the eyes of the law," Young said.

During numerous searches through records, both McManus and Young have noticed names of other cemeteries that are no longer on maps. So far at least 50 cemeteries (most of those were African-American cemeteries) in Navarro County have been researched, with many more that haven't been located yet.

Young said the commission would appreciate any help with information on locating the cemeteries or history related to existing cemeteries that have been found.

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Stephen Farris may be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]

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