Some two dozen volunteers turned out Saturday to help clean the historically black section of Liberty Cemetery in Porterdale, where boy scouts labored alongside older generations to rake, prune, and restore the site as best they could.
Clark Hansen, 12, of the local Boy Scout Troop 93, said pitching in was “the right thing to do” as he filled a wheel barrow with fresh dirt to help fill in sunken graves.
“It’s important to help maintain [cemeteries] because people who have died here, their families can actually come back here and look and…remember memories of them, and this is also a part of history,” said Hansen.
Deborah Bridges, who has family buried in Liberty, drove in from Snellville where she lives when she heard about the cleanup effort.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful that somebody took the time to make it so where you can see it’s a cemetery and not just a pile of leaves,” said Bridges, gesturing towards the thick overgrowth and fallen tombstones.
Like many older cemeteries, Liberty is divided into a historically white section at the front and a smaller, historically black section in the back—a legacy of segregation.
Bridges said the diversity of volunteers was a testament to the progress made since blacks and whites were segregated even in death, but she lamented that the black side of the city cemetery was allowed to deteriorate while the white section was kept up.
“I think it says a lot, that we haven’t come that far that [the white] part is cleaned up and this part is not, but at least you can see now it’s all coming together; the changes are there now,” she said.
Several volunteers expressed skepticism toward official claims that the city and county was either unaware of the black cemetery’s location or lacked the manpower to maintain it, but everyone appeared to welcome Saturday’s initiative.
Oyu Warner, a member of the African American Historical Association, said cemetery cleanups are part of the organization’s ongoing efforts to honor the community’s elders, especially those who have passed on.
“Sometimes even trying to get access in here, it’s too bushy, it’s too overgrown, there’s shrubs with thorns…so it’s about making it a bit accessible for those who want to get to their loved ones,” she said. “It’s just good human behavior to care for those that have departed.”
County Chairman Keith Ellis also praised the turnout, especially the presence of younger participants who he called the “future leaders” of the community.
Newton County is home to nearly 300 cemeteries, many of which have been abandoned. The Liberty Cemetery cleanup is the first of six organized by the county cemetery committee over the next two months.
Ellis said cleaning up the cemeteries would make them accessible for local descendants and visitors who trace their family back to the area.
“In years past, family reunions would be held in these kinds of cemeteries and they’d clean up, but family reunions are somewhat a thing of the past,” said Ellis.
Anna Ruth Ivy, 85, recalled that her church used to organize regular cemetery cleanups when she was growing up. Unfortunately, she said, the older generations have passed away and many young people have left the area.
“This is what we used to do; years ago we used to have certain days to clean the cemetery but all that went out,” she said. “It’s just one of those things.”