Merlene Davis: Lexington historian unearths lives in black cemeteries

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 31, 2013 

Yvonne Giles has spent much of her retirement uncovering and preserving history in Lexington that shows just how interlaced black people have been in the fabric of this city.

The research required to unearth neglected and forgotten lives buried in cemeteries and public documents is tedious and time-consuming at best.

The effort required to safeguard that information or save historic sites for generations to come is exhausting and often frustrating because few people share her vision, or perhaps the money necessary to fulfill that vision.

So, what motivates and energizes Giles, a self-taught historian who has become the go-to source for accurate information about Lexington's black history?

"I come to the cemetery because it is my haven," she said recently, while sitting on a bench in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. "This is a place I can come and just sit."

But while sitting there, she recounted the story of a man who bought his freedom from slavery, became a blacksmith and owned his own home.

She waved her hand in the direction of another marker where the person's story is quite similar.

Others buried there pooled a scant amount of money and started an orphanage for colored children, an annual fair that promoted racial achievement, and several churches, Giles said.

"If they could do it, why can't we?" she asked. "We have disposable income but choose not to use it to build up the community.

"It sickens me," she continued. "I have read when doing my research of this cemetery that people said it wasn't worth saving. Now look at it. We are on the National Register and on tourist websites and in brochures and on tourist routes."

Using those stories as her motivation, Giles is readying herself for the next forgotten nugget of history and the next battle to preserve it.

A native of Lexington, Giles, 69, attended segregated schools before graduating from Henry Clay High School. She married and gave birth to her daughter while earning a degree in food science and nutrition from the University of Kentucky.

She worked for a short while at Good Samaritan Hospital in the dietetics department before joining the agriculture extension service.

Divorced by then, she worked for the extension service in Lexington, Frankfort and then LaGrange, before retiring in 1985.

"I retired early," Giles said. "I didn't like working 9 to 5. I don't like sitting at desks. I never have. I don't like the bureaucracy. There were some changes going on in the administration, and I just had to leave."

In 1986, while living in LaGrange, she was selected to fill an unexpired term on the LaGrange City Council, and became the first black woman to serve in that capacity. The following year, she was re-elected for a full term.

"Politics is not for me either," Giles said. "I could not deal with politics. I never want to do that again."

Giles became a sales representative in the gift industry, taking orders for goods from stores in Whitesburg, Morehead, Hazard, Harlan and Middlesboro. "There weren't many sales reps working Eastern Kentucky, especially black," she said.

Her first week there, she earned $20, 10 percent of a $200 order.

"Nobody was rude to me or nasty to me," Giles said. "I never had any issues with them and they didn't have any issues with me. So, I went back. They became my best customers."

She was on the road a lot, but loved it, finally retiring in 1999.

That's when she became consumed by a desire to learn about her roots.

Her mother had accompanied a great aunt to the African Cemetery long ago to decorate the gravesites of family members. Giles took her mother to the overgrown cemetery to find out where those gravesites were.

The next day, Giles returned to the cemetery and was greeted by Thomas Mundy, who convinced her to join the small band of people trying to save the cemetery.

Since then, she has worked to record 1,132 graves, 600 of which have headstones still standing. Of that number, 45 are relatives, she said, three of whom she discovered last year. She has written a book, Still Voices Yet Speak, detailing the graves in the cemetery, and has refused to sell it to anyone who simply wants a casual read.

"It is for research," she said.

Giles is trying to do the same type of research at Lexington's Cove Haven Cemetery as well.

She has become the local authority for Lexington sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway — whose mother and grandmother are buried in African Cemetery No. 2 — and founded a museum in his name.

She conducts walking tours in downtown Lexington pointing out homes and businesses of black and white residents in the late 1800s.

And she is helping the First African Foundation raise money to purchase the former First African Baptist Church building to convert it to a cultural arts center.

That is a full plate by anyone's standards, and it can mean she's not as diplomatic as some think she should be.

"People have told me, you don't make Ms. Giles mad," she said. "I tell them we all are bipolar and we don't know how we will react in a situation until we are faced with it."

Bruce Mundy, Thomas Mundy's brother and a member of the board of the African Cemetery No. 2, however, said Giles is really like an M&M candy: hard on the outside and soft in the middle.

"If she has her mind set on doing something and people are resistant, they will get the stern Yvonne," Mundy said. "That is not who she is; that is who she can become."

He said Giles has done a lot for the cemetery and other projects using her own money. And she has made sure students are aware of history so that the next generation continues the work and the respect for the past.

"I can be hard-nosed and I can be compassionate," Giles said. "I can have fun and I can be mean. I'm just like anybody else."

Mundy disagreed. Giles is special, he said.

"She is very passionate about telling our story," he said. "It's the history of Lexington as a whole."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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