Documentary, book tell cemetery's stories

Lexington's Juneteenth celebration this year will serve as a backdrop for the premiere of a documentary and the release of a reference book, both about African Cemetery No. 2.

The documentary, Eight Acres of History: Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2, was produced by Lexington Public Library Cable Channel 20 and coordinator Thom Southerland. It will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lexington Public Library, 140 East Main Street.

The documentary features music by the American Spiritual Ensemble. After its premiere, it will air on Cable Channel 20, a public access channel provided to Lexington residents by Insight Communications, at 8 p.m. daily.

The documentary chronicles the dedicated group that first bought the land for the cemetery. That benevolent group, and a women's auxiliary, cared for not only the dead but the living: the destitute and those who were newly freed.

As families moved away, however, the cemetery on East Seventh Street became overgrown, vandalized and neglected, until finally the city wanted to condemn it. Southerland said he was fascinated by the common and uncommon stories of those buried in the cemetery. There are more than 5,000 graves and about 1,200 markers at the cemetery. The last burial was in 1974.

"I just want people to be informed and moved by the documentary," he said. "I'm a conduit for these stories. The fascinating part is the story of the people who created the cemetery and the people who recovered the cemetery."

About 10 years ago, a small group of concerned residents united to save the cemetery and to bring it back to its original glory.

One of those residents is Yvonne Giles, who culled through various deeds, obituaries, wills and newspaper clippings to discover the stories of some of those buried there and create a portrait of the cemetery's founders.

Her six years of laborious research has resulted in Stilled Voices Yet Speak: A History of Benevolent Society No. 2 Cemetery and Ladies' Auxiliary Cemetery.

"It's about my journey into knowing the history of the cemetery," Giles said. "It started with my looking up my family."

The book contains the inscriptions for every headstone in the cemetery and how difficult it was to decipher weathered and damaged imprints, she said.

Then she explored the society of slaves and freedmen who bought the land to bury their dead and the lengths they went to keep the cemetery as hallowed ground.

"It is a comprehensive history," Giles said. "It is archival research. I didn't write it to be a novel."

Buried there are some of Lexington's most prominent black citizens since it was established in 1869: ministers; teachers; business owners; buffalo soldiers; and a member of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made famous in the film Glory.

Also buried there is the winning jockey of the inaugural Kentucky Derby, Oliver Lewis, who has received little acknowledgement.

Copies of Stilled Voices Yet Speak will be on sale at the Juneteenth celebration for $25, with a percentage of the proceeds going toward maintenance of the cemetery.

Juneteenth became the annual celebration of the freeing of the last group of slaves by the Union Army on June 19, 1865, 21/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in other states.

Gen. Gordon Granger led Union troops into Galveston, Texas, freeing the slaves there, as in 10 other states governed by the Confederacy. Those slaves had to be freed by Union troops who went into those states to establish federal law.

This year, Lexington's celebration will be in the cemetery from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and will include an encampment by re-enactors of the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment, a "libations to ancestors" African ceremony, drumming by Sacred Sisters Drumming Circle, string music by Booker T. Washington Academy students, and a display of artifacts by the Henry Clay High School History Club.

After the celebration, take time to walk through the rows of headstones to read a bit of history. It is a history that, with the documentary and the book, will not be overlooked again.

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