When Lexington began Juneteenth celebrations at African Cemetery No. 2 in 1999, the gathering honored 49 black Civil War veterans whose gravestones were found during the cemetery’s restoration.
Yvonne Giles knew there had to be more — a lot more. She has been looking for them ever since.
Giles’ research has found more than 51 additional names, and it has revealed some fascinating stories about these men, most of whom were literally fighting for their freedom. One veteran belonged to the famous unit depicted in the Oscar-winning movie “Glory.” Others went on to become prominent church and community leaders.
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This year’s festivities include Civil War re-enactor Robert Bell and Amy Taylor, a University of Kentucky history professor, who with her students will talk about their research into veteran Essex Harrison and his wife, Margaret. Noted Lexington wood sculptor LaVon Van Williams will show his work and demonstrate his technique.
Juneteenth celebrations commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger, whose wife was from Lexington, officially declared slavery over in Texas, setting off a huge celebration among black people there. Juneteenth has been adopted in many states, including Kentucky, as National Freedom Day.
Also to mark that anniversary, the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden’s first permanent sculpture will be dedicated at a 7 p.m. ceremony Monday in the garden at East Third Street at Midland Avenue. The piece was designed by California artists Neal and Tiffany Bociek and fabricated by Lexington sculptor Andrew Light.
The Union Army didn’t accept black soldiers until 1863, after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially freed slaves in Confederate states, but not Kentucky, a slave state that officially remained in the union.
About 24,000 Kentucky black men volunteered. Most were escaped slaves who knew military service would earn them freedom. At least 10,000 found their way to Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, which became the third-largest recruiting and training depot for black soldiers.
Others, including many free blacks, went to other states to enlist. By the end of the war, roughly 179,000 black men had served, making up 10 percent of the Union Army, and 40,000 had died.
Those numbers convinced Giles there had to be more Civil War veterans in the eight-acre African Cemetery No. 2, where fewer than half of the estimated 5,000 graves have been identified. Giles helped lead the cemetery’s restoration, and her prodigious research has made her an authority on black history in Lexington.
“I literally said to myself, we have more than that,” said Giles, who thinks there may be as many as 300. “How are we going to prove it?”
Giles’ painstaking research has included federal census reports, death certificates, online genealogy databases and military documents. She also has searched old newspapers and government records of everything from headstone orders to pension applications.
“It has been a long, long process,” Giles said. “Each year I would find a few more.”
Among the many stories of veterans in African Cemetery No. 2 is that of George Thomas Prosser, who was born in Columbia, Tenn., and made his way to Readville, Mass., in March 1863 to enlist in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Colored).
That unit led a suicide assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863, which is the climax of the 1989 movie “Glory” starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman. Prosser was presumed dead after that battle on Morris Island, S.C.
Giles found a letter his mother wrote to officials seeking to determine his fate. That prompted them to discover that Prosser had been taken prisoner rather than killed. He spent 19 months in a Confederate prison before being freed in a troop exchange.
Prosser went on to become a prominent evangelist in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his 1904 obituary in the Lexington Leader said “hundreds of souls have been converted listening to his sermons.”
Another veteran in the cemetery who became a prominent AME minister was Joseph B. Courtney, who was born a slave in Shelbyville in 1845 and joined the 31st New York Infantry at Buffalo, N.Y., in July 1864.
“My challenge is to get more of our veterans documented so we can honor them,” Giles said. “It’s information that has been sitting out there all the time, but nobody’s taken the time to uncover it.”