BY LYNN OLDSHUE
On Veterans Day 2017, Janie Ligon wanted to place an American flag on her brother’s grave at Oaklawn Cemetery in Mobile, but the overgrown vegetation made it impossible to enter.
Ligon has lived next to the cemetery for more than 20 years and remembers the 21-gun salutes for the funerals of veterans. She remembers the change of seasons as the cemetery filled with red poinsettias at Christmas and colorful gladiolas on Mother’s Day.
But the cemetery became rundown when no one claimed ownership. The land returned to the wild when the caretakers of graves died or moved away.
“The weeds grew so high that I couldn’t get to my brother’s grave on his birthday or the anniversary of his death,” she said. “It felt like I lost a part of him again.”
Ligon was in the 10th grade when her mother received the notice of casualty about her brother, Eddie Hill, delivered by a yellow cab.
“It was on a Saturday night 55 years ago,” Ligon said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
The Western Union telegram read: “The Secretary of the Army asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Eddie Hill, died in Vietnam on November 4, 1965, as the result of hostile missile action while in a search and destroy mission. Please accept my deepest sympathy. J.C. Lambert, Major General.”
“My mama never liked yellow cabs after that,” Ligon said.
Hill graduated from Josephine Allen school and went straight into the military. Ligon didn’t know how serious the Vietnam War was until men she knew were killed in action there.
“My brother joined the Army for patriotism and income,” she said. “At that time it was hard for a Black man to get a good job in Mobile.”
When Hill entered the Army, Ligon said, there was still conflict between Black and White soldiers. Meanwhile, she was still walking to the back of the bus, drinking from “colored” water fountains and using separate bathrooms in Mobile.
“Blacks were buried at Oaklawn, and Whites were buried at the Catholic cemetery next door,” she said. “Most Black families in Mobile have people buried here.”
There are about 10,000 graves in the 18.5-acre cemetery; military veterans are in more than 800 of them. Volunteers clearing and documenting Oaklawn estimate there could be an additional 1,200 veterans buried in the uncleared acres.
The 89-year-old cemetery, located at 1800 Holt Road, is non-perpetual care, meaning families of the deceased are responsible for maintaining the burial plots. Through the decades, the graves became covered over by weeds, leaves and vines or upended by trees.
The veterans buried at Oaklawn served in World War I and World War II. They fought in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those who were raised in the Jim Crow South gave their lives for a country that refused to give them the right to vote until 1965. They fought for a democracy that rejected their equality.
Ligon called them “forgotten heroes” and wanted to honor them.
“I felt like no one cared about these veterans who were buried in a Black cemetery,” she said. “They deserve appreciation and American flags on their graves, just like veterans at the other cemeteries in Mobile.”
Having trouble finding flags, she went to Saucy-Q Bar B Que and asked for help.
“The owner, Elbert Wingfield, was my classmate and a veteran,” she said. “He said he would help with the flags and knew the right person to check out the veterans’ graves.”
Within a month, Ligon drove past Oaklawn and saw Eddie Irby from the South Alabama Veterans Council in the cemetery, writing down the names of veterans. That first day, he found about 50, including Buffalo Soldiers from the 92nd Infantry Division — the only African American infantry division to see combat in Europe during World War II.
“I could barely get into the cemetery that first day,” Irby said. “It was warm and the snakes were out.”
Irby returned with Bill Atkeison, who is a Vietnam veteran and the Mobile Bay Area 2020 Veteran of the Year, and they counted 50 more.
“They were from the Red Ball Express, a truck convoy system serving under General Patton that supplied Allied forces moving quickly through Europe,” Irby said. “Most of the drivers were Black. There are also members of the 555 all-Black parachute unit. They were called the Triple Nickles.”
Standing in the cemetery on a cleanup day, Irby said every veteran buried at Oaklawn has a story, and he pointed out a few.
“John Campbell was one of the first Black military policemen, and he taught me at Dunbar High School,” Irby said. “Seward Sylvester was a Buffalo Soldier in World War I and delivered supplies by covered wagon.”
Irby stopped by two military graves that were side-by-side. He said Capt. Leon Roberts commanded a squadron of the Tuskegee airmen. He flew 97 missions and was about to come home. He died at 23 years old when the plane he was testing crashed. There is a replica of his plane, the Derailer, at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. His twin brother, Rev. Cleon Roberts, was an instructor in instrument flying for the Tuskegee Airmen. He later became a postman and a pastor.
“Going into the military was a Black man’s chance to prove himself,” Irby said. “My uncle was a Buffalo Soldier with the 92nd Infantry Division. He entered the military with a third-grade education and won medals of honor. After the war, he learned how to read and worked his way up to a civil servant. He said he fought for those who came after him.
“Today we stand on their shoulders,” he said.
After finding the graves of 110 veterans, Irby said, he asked the South Alabama Veterans Council and the Patriot Guard Riders, who attend funerals for members of the military, for help. Headstones were knocked over or covered in dirt and debris. Graves were unmarked or unreachable in the thick undergrowth.
“I said, ‘Lord, this seems impossible, but nothing is impossible with You,’” Irby said. “He sent a whole regiment and we started getting it done. I am so grateful for their work.”
“Operation Overload” began with a mission to locate and clean graves and then place American flags on them.
Irby said the military brought in tractors, cranes and tree cutters, and Coast Guard members came in from across the country. Team Rubicon, a disaster response team of military veterans with first responders, also arrived to help. Other groups joined in, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, JROTC members and church parishioners. It was covered on WALA-TV FOX10.
The more they cleared, the more veterans they discovered.
They found World War l veterans, including Frank Patterson, who served in the Pioneer Infantry, a Black regiment formed during World War I as road maintenance troops who were also used as manual labor. They found Samuel Summerall, a Jewish private in the U.S. Army.
One of the earliest veterans buried at Oaklawn is Marshall Lewis. Born in August 1897, he died 34years later, in August 1931. During World War l, he served in the 157th Depot Brigade in the Army, providing recruits with uniforms and equipment before they went to France to fight on the front lines. The inscription on his headstone reads: “My husband. Too good for Earth. God called him home.”
Irby said once Operation Overload cleared the front of the cemetery and put up the flagpoles and flags, neighbors started doing more with their yards, too.
“This area became a safer place,” he said.
With the help of Fran Barber-Bruyn, Neil Bruyn and Sherri Deakle, Atkeison formed the Veteran’s Memorial Recovery Team (VMRT), dedicated to “restoring dignity to our heroes interred at Oaklawn Cemetery.”
“Pretty soon we found so many veterans that we figured we need to clean the whole cemetery,” Atkeison said. “For three years, we have been here every weekend and have cleared about eight acres.
“The grass grows quickly in Mobile,” he said. “You get halfway to the end, then you have to start back over. We have removed appliances, furniture and bags and bags of trash that people dumped here. We also found several burned cars over the years.”
Atkeison is passionate about honoring veterans because “they are the ones who put us here.”
“Without them, we wouldn’t have this country we have,” he said. “People need to know our real history, the history of wars and the men who fought them.”
Atkeison served 15 years in the Army and fought in Vietnam.
“We had hard times in Vietnam,” he said. “Some came home with horrible wounds. A lot of men died in Vietnam; they just haven’t laid down yet.”
Atkeison said his wife asked him why he doesn’t smile.
“I forgot how,” he said. “I tried to shut the door on Vietnam, but there are a lot of cracks and holes.”
Listening to bluegrass music while clearing graves in Oaklawn helps Atkeison heal a little.
“It doesn’t matter the war we fought, the branch we served in or the color of our skin, there is a brotherhood in the military,” he said. “I can’t let these veterans be forgotten.”
VMRT’s list of veterans buried at Oaklawn showed that the majority were private or private first class in the Army in World War II.
Jim Ellis, a retired director of South Alabama’s Office of International Education, and his wife, Georgeann, are attempting to document every grave in Oaklawn, veteran and civilian. Entering each grave into the “Find A Grave” memorial website, they hope to tell the story of a community and the times they lived in.
“Think about what was going on in Mobile during these wars,” Ellis said. “What conditions did these veterans rise out of? They couldn’t shop or work downtown. Many of their jobs were limited to unskilled tasks, working at the shipyards, docks or Brookley Field or in supporting roles.”
Ellis said the graves tell a powerful story about war and country but also the roots of the Civil Rights Movement.
“These men returned from war and fought for freedom at home,” he said.
One of those veterans buried at Oaklawn is Wiley Bolden Jr., a World War I Army sergeant who fought in segregated American units in France and Germany and was wounded twice in action. He served from October 28, 1917, until he was honorably discharged on March 19, 1919.
Bolden was a civil rights activist and the lead plaintiff in the 1975 Bolden v. City of Mobile case, which alleged Mobile’s at-large form of government diluted minority voting rights in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. City officials were elected citywide, rather than from specific districts, meaning no Black candidate could be elected to a prominent position without significant White support. Appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case led to the city’s change to a mayor-council form of government in 1985, electing council members from districts.
Bolden once said, “There’s nothing permanent in life but change, even a blind man learns how to change his route sometime,” according to a story in the Mobile Press-Register.
Bolden also helped organize the Mobile branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Non-Partisan Voters League with another civil rights leader, John LeFlore.
Researching in the archives at the University of South Alabama, Ellis found the transcripts of interviews recorded in 1970-72 with LeFlore, who described a “rigid system of segregation and discrimination against Blacks in almost every facet of public life in the early ’40s and during the war.”
Black veterans were not eligible for the training that would prepare them for skilled jobs, according to LeFlore’s interview.
“When the men came back from World War II, they were restricted in training opportunities to cooking and baking school,” he said.
LeFlore said these men who had “gone out to fight, bleed and die for their country were entitled to a better deal than this country had prepared for them on their return.”
Oaklawn is filled with men and women who gave themselves for a community and a country that did not offer them the better deal, Ellis said, “but they succeeded anyway.”
They include Mobile’s first Black doctors, lawyers and educators. Musicians, city and state leaders and the first Black Mardi Gras queen are buried there. Some owned businesses on Davis Avenue.
Despite the history buried in Oaklawn, the cemetery’s story is untold, and the ownership is unclear, Ellis said. No one is currently responsible for its upkeep or preservation.
Oaklawn is believed to have started in 1876 as a family cemetery on land owned by the Toulmin family and expanded into a community cemetery by 1879. It became formally organized in 1931, serving “the African American community and others from all walks of life,” according to the historical marker at the entrance.
“The cemetery has been in limbo for years, and the city of Mobile isn’t doing anything to help,” said Fran Barber-Bruyn, a veterans’ advocate and photojournalist raising awareness of the cemetery.
Barber-Bruyn said knowing there are individuals who are buried in Oaklawn who fought for her freedom and are forgotten “hurts me to my core.”
Bringing attention to the veterans, she helped the cemetery become listed as an Alabama Historical Site and placed on the Alabama Places in Peril list in 2019. She also helped turn VMRT into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so it could receive donations and grants that would pay for clearing the whole cemetery and hiring a crew to maintain it.
Barber-Bruyn estimated it will cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to properly clear Oaklawn and about $5,000 a month to maintain it.
“Having a consistent maintenance plan is how we hope to preserve Oaklawn,” Barber-Bruyn said. “We have to do this before it is too late.”
Neighbors, volunteers and those with loved ones buried at Oaklawn dream of the cemetery becoming a park with trees, flowers and walking trails stretching back to the Toulmins Spring Branch Creek at the edge of the property. In the fall, Oaklawn is filled with hummingbirds, cardinals, black-eyed Susans, floss flowers and lantanas.
“If Oaklawn is to recover significantly, it needs to be a neighborhood resource,” Ellis said. “The history and natural beauty are already there.”
Alabama codes provide for cities and counties to establish a cemetery rehabilitation authority and a board to oversee the registration and maintenance of neglected cemeteries within their municipal limits, Ellis said.
A statement from the city of Mobile said it is “supportive of the efforts that families and community groups have made over the years to clean up and restore Oaklawn Cemetery,” but there is little it can do to help.
“I am happy to use the city’s influence to help garner and direct interest in rehabilitating and preserving this historic space,” Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. “However, this is a piece of property that is not owned by the city, and we are not in a position to take on the direct responsibility of restoring or maintaining it into the future.”
For Irby, it’s not only who owns the cemetery but who is going to pick up the torch and pass the stories to the next generations.
“We have to preserve the history and get our community, especially kids, interested because history has a strange way of repeating itself,” Irby said.
“Oaklawn should be sacred ground. If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you’re going?” he said.
Editor’s Note: This is the second story in the series “Buried at Oaklawn.” The next story, “Davis Avenue,” will be in the December 2 issue of Lagniappe.
Correction: The first story, “Buried in Oaklawn,” reported Bishop Cornelius Woods is buried in the Woods family mausoleum in Oaklawn. His name and the dates of his birth and death are inscribed on the mausoleum, but he is interred at Memorial Funeral Home.
If you have stories about Oaklawn you want to share or someone you want to find who is buried in the cemetery, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lynn Oldshue is a journalist for Lagniappe and Alabama Public Radio. She is also the storyteller for “Our Southern Souls.”
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