BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – Wednesday marked the twentieth time the grass has been cut in the past year at Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens and Cemetery.
A volunteer weaving the gasoline tractor through the gravestones said it would take eight days to cover the 40 acres.
This volunteer is part of a small group that makes up the Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens Maintenance and Perpetual Care Association. He works to preserve the cemetery and to study the family history and genealogy of the people who lie there.
Founded in 1889 for a dollar, the cemetery was intended for African Americans who could not afford a proper burial.
Over fifteen years ago, dozens of people protested at Shadow Lawn about the conditions at the cemetery. The owners subsequently declared bankruptcy and left the cemetery without a guard.
John Lanier, one of the Association’s volunteers, says several members of his family are buried at Shadow Lawn, including his father and mother. Although the Lanier family plot was purchased for 24 people, half of the plots are occupied by foreigners.
“We thought, ‘This can’t happen. When did that happen? When did they bury people in this section?’”, Recalls Lanier.
Without a cemetery keeper, Lanier is committed to taking care of his family’s graves. And the plots intended for his family but occupied by strangers. And, also, all the other 40,000 graves on the cemetery grounds.
“There should be no doubt that your final resting place will be taken care of,” Lanier said.
He calls it a “labor of love”. The retired government worker, who returned to Birmingham after four decades in Washington, DC, says he never dreamed he would step into running the cemetery.
“Why am I doing this?” Lanier wondered. He has been volunteering for ten years.
“I love to play golf, I love to travel,” he said. “But it’s like a feeling of… it’s an obligation in a way even though we’re all volunteers. I just believe the Lord sends people, puts you in a certain place at a certain time, to do a certain thing. “
Lanier, who studied genealogy at the National Archives in Washington, DC, researched many people buried at Shadow Lawn.
Near the gated entrance, Lanier stops at the grave of Benjamin Hardman, a Spanish-American War veteran from Tallapoosa, Alabama.
“This guy had a brilliant military record,” Lanier said. “His commander said he was smart.
Hardman was wounded in the war when he was shot in the wrist.
It’s a short walk from a small gravestone for DT Sheilds.
“He’s the great-great, maybe the third grandfather of Mrs. Michelle Obama from her mother’s side of the family,” Lanier said. “He was a founding member of Trinity Baptist Church.”
Nelson Sturdivant, a man born into slavery in Dallas County, near Selma, Alabama, rests at the perimeter of the cemetery. The marker indicates that Sturdivant was born in 1853, but Lanier says his research suggests he was born in 1855.
“He married in 1874 and he and his wife had four children,” Lanier explained, standing next to the deteriorating gravestone. Unlike most granite headstones, the maker of Sturdivant is made from a composite of granite and concrete.
“We have kids from local schools who need to know this,” Lanier says of all the gravestones and the history he’s researched. “There is a lot of history in this cemetery, despite some overgrown areas there is so much history about mostly African Americans and that puts it in context.”
The Association earns interest on a state-mandated investment account, which is used for upkeep and maintenance. Lanier says that typically totals less than $ 10,000 each year, an amount that doesn’t even cover lawn maintenance.
Lanier hopes to be able to raise funds to take better care of the cemetery and create a small permanent museum open to the public. He says that as 501 (c) (13) every dollar goes towards the upkeep, operation and management of the cemetery. Lanier is not paid.
“We will need funding, funding for various purposes. Of course, we want to maintain the grounds. Of course, we want to eventually move forward with a memorial, with a museum. We want this museum to make this place even more alive, ”he said.
“There is a legacy that must be preserved here,” Lanier said, looking at the cemetery.
Read a copy of the 1889 act for Shadow Lawn below:
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