Photo | Lagniappe
A group of veteran volunteers rehabilitated Oaklawn Cemetery and paid for a historic marker to be placed on the grounds.
On Wednesday, organizers celebrated the unveiling of a historic marker placed on the grounds of Oaklawn Cemetery in Toulminville, where as many as 2,000 veterans may be buried.
The dedication ceremony was the culmination of more than a year of work for Eddie Irby, president and founder of the 92nd Infantry Division of Buffalo Soldiers Association, and a group of veteran volunteers. The group worked to clean the once-overgrown cemetery and identify many of the veterans buried within.
“People have asked me, ‘is it hard?’ Yeah, it was hard,” Irby told a group of visitors at the dedication. “They asked me, ‘how did you do this when nobody could get it down for years?’ I told them people before me had meetings … I asked God to help out and He sent me some veterans, and the veterans have been with me ever since.”
The cemetery that began as a small family plot in 1876 was officially recognized as a historic cemetery in September of last year, according to the Alabama Historical Society’s Cemetery Program Coordinator Hannah Garmon. Oaklawn was a local burial place in 1879 and became a formal cemetery in the city in 1931.
Oaklawn Cemetery primarily served the city’s black population, including veterans from all branches of the military, Garmon read from the historic marker.
“The total number of burials is unknown,” Garmon said. “It is believed more than 10,000 people are buried here.”
Irby’s group paid for the historic marker placed at the site, Garmon said, as the state provides no funding for markers.
“It will serve as further testament to the lives buried here,” she said of the marker. “It will educate passersby of the historical significance of the cemetery.”
Irby received praise from District 4 City Councilman John Williams, a retired Army Major.
“If everyone was like Eddie Irby, we wouldn’t have to resurrect things because everything would be new and stay new,” he said. “We have somebody in our midst who has helped restore this holy ground.”
Williams called Irby a “true patriot” and a hero for his work to help recognize the veterans buried at Oaklawn.
“Eddie kept a commitment to his people,” he said. “Everyone who has served is Eddie’s people.”
A group of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War helped unveil the marker.
In remarks during the ceremony, Irby invited others to help maintain the cemetery by either coming out to help his group on Saturday mornings or by adopting a section of it. Following the ceremony, Irby told reporters he was relieved the day of the unveiling had finally come.
“You know, for the first time since I came out here, I got a full night’s sleep last night,” he said. “I felt so relieved.”
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