‘There’s history behind these graves’: Teens clean overgrown African-American graveyard

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Several teens headed out to an unfamiliar place last week. But once they arrived, they immediately got to work. They knew they were about to be part of something much bigger than themselves.

“It’s probably the last place you would expect for a graveyard, especially an African-American one in Wilson,” said 13-year-old Camren Dixon.

Camren, a participant in the Wilson County Schools mentor program the Gentleman’s Agreement, was one of several teens who are taking on the project to restore an overgrown African-American graveyard on Forest Hills Road beside Wiggins Mill Water Treatment Plant.

Last week, the teens started clearing out debris, trash and cutting down branches to kick start the project that will take some time to finish.

“It’s more hardworking than the other project we did,” said 12-year-old Emaryia Keyes. “We need a lot of strong people, which we have. We can fix it up real nice.”

The cemetery sits on 0.28 acres, according to Wilson County property records. No owners are listed for the property. The teens hope to find family members of those laid to rest in effort to preserve the area.

“Doing this is kind of paying respect ... if it wasn’t for them we probably wouldn’t even be here,” said 11-year-old Ryan Jones.

While the cemetery is barely visible from the road, the teens hope to change that over the next several months. Their program mentor and history teacher, Ken Fontenot, said the project was a perfect fit for the students. He said it not only teaches the boys about their heritage but gives them an opportunity to take part in preserving African-American history in Wilson County.

“There’s history behind these graves,” he said. “I think it’s critical.”

Several of the tombstones carry the local name Darden and Herring, Fontenot said. They hope to find out more about those who are laid to rest in the area and the history behind them, he said.

Fontenot said he’s been teaching the kids about their history.

“This is a local graveyard,” he said. “A lot of these kids have local families. It’s my hope by the time the school year’s over, we will have it completely cleared with this small group, myself and others.”


The teens rolled up their sleeves, put on gloves and got to work after school on this particular day. When they discovered large tombstones, they stopped to read the names.

“They seem very enthusiastic,” said Lynne Lamm, a member of the Wilson County Genealogical Society who reached out to Fontenot about the project. Lamm was also there helping clean up the area and moving debris with the group.

“I’m tickled these young men are willing to do this,” Lamm said. “It really needs to be cleaned out. We are going to do the best we can to clean it up.”

Some of the graves date back to 1933. The teens said they hope to find out more about each person laid to rest and their role in the Wilson community.

“I think it connects them to their ancestry,” Lamm said. “That’s why we do genealogy — to found out more about our ancestors.”

Khamani Thomas, 12, agreed.

“It’s a great project because we get to help build a better resting place for our brothers and sisters who have fought hard for their lives and our freedom,” he said. “And I am really thankful for this project.”