MOORHEAD, Iowa – On a secluded ridge surrounded by trees and corn stands a unique piece of Monona County history that few seem to know exists.
Fewer know the story behind South Jordan Cemetery, and even those who have spent years searching for the tiny plot, where members of a small group of African Americans who settled in this area after the civil war, have many questions.
Local history buffs hope the cemetery’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year will lead to more publicity for the site and help them find answers to questions people like Judy Ehlers have been asking for decades. years.
“It’s important to me because there’s no place like this,” said Ehlers, who grew up three miles up the road and lives near Soldier. “There just aren’t many black cemeteries in Iowa.”
Chair of the Monona County Historic Preservation Commission, Ehlers has been working on the National Register nomination, a designation she says could help provide funds to erect signage to publicize the site and direct visitors to the remote location. These signs might attract more visitors, and perhaps one will appear with key information to solve some of the mysteries of the story at this scenic site in the middle of the Loess Hills.
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Any story in the media leads to a few new inquiries and comments, said Sharon Holverson of Moorhead, a member of the Ehlers historical commission. At some point, she thinks, publicity will cause a descendant of those settlers from long ago to come forward. It certainly piqued the curiosity of locals, she said.
“We were surprised that people felt as strongly about this place as they did,” Holverson said of the backlash after the cemetery was granted national registry status.
Established in 1882, the cemetery is located between Moorhead, Turin and Soldier and is maintained by the Jordan Township Board. Located at the intersection of 260th Street and Peach Avenue in the Moorhead countryside and nestled amongst the trees, it’s a peaceful location where few passing vehicles disturb the gentle sound of leaves rustling in the breeze.
Not much is known about the 60 to 90 black settlers who made this area their home. Ehlers said Adam Miers, a white man from Ohio, settled here in 1856 and later brought many settlers here, employing some of them on his farm. Historians know that the settlers, believed to be freed slaves, arrived some time after the Civil War. Nothing remains of the settlement, which according to various stories consisted of canoes in the hills, mud houses and more conventional dwellings.
Ehlers says it’s unclear why the settlers left. She suspects they went to more populated areas in search of better jobs. Most had disappeared by 1910.
While they were here, Miers ceded land for the cemetery, which over the years has come to be known as the Black Cemetery or Negro Cemetery. Twenty people are believed to be buried here, including two in 1884, according to the only two headstones on which the date of death is visible. Two white women who lived nearby were buried here much more recently, one in 1988, the other earlier this year.
Ehlers hopes more research into cemetery records will reveal the exact number of graves in the cemetery, but even if she can find that information, locating the graves will remain a challenge. Less than half have markers, and most of them are broken or the names on them can’t be read. Depressions in the ground indicate other possible burials.
Ehlers and Holvorson said part of the mystery may have roots in racial prejudice. They heard stories of interracial marriages between black and white settlers. Over the years, some white families have been unwilling to admit the relationships and may have removed headstones in order to keep them secret.
This is where listing the cemetery in the national register could pay off. If this can lead to an influx of grants, local historians would like to hire someone to locate the graves. Repairing and replacing damaged headstones is also on the wish list.
With the historic designation now in place, Ehlers no longer fears that the cemetery and the people buried there will be forgotten.
“It’s something unique and I didn’t want it to be lost, and I was worried that in 50 years it wouldn’t be there anymore,” she said.
Several people have mobilized to ensure the continuity of the cemetery and its history. Hopefully more of this story is revealed so the mysteries and unanswered questions don’t linger with it.