Helping Hand Cemetery honors veterans

Published 4:02 pm Friday, May 31, 2024

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Leaders of Helping Hand Cemetery in Courtland shared historical information to people in the community on Monday morning, May 27, with regard to Memorial Day and the cemetery during a program dedicated to honoring veterans and ancestors who helped pave the way to a brighter future.

As noted in a printed history of Helping Hand Cemetery, it began as a burial ground in the 1800s for former slaves, sharecroppers, free people of color and Native Americans.

“Buried in HHC are more than 500 Black Southampton County residents including veterans from the Civil War to Vietnam; a Native American family and descendants; heroes from the police force; and members of the early African American community of Courtland representing Black entrepreneurs, musicians, religious and social activists,” the printed history states. “The people buried in HHC provide a blueprint documenting the rich history of Courtland’s African American community as well as their contributions to the town and to African American culture.”

HHC’s Memorial Day Program was originally set to take place in the cemetery on Monday morning, but due to rain, it was moved to the nearby Courtland Community Center, drawing a group of more than 30 people from the community and beyond.

David Temple A.M.E. Zion Church Pastor Kenneth Zollicoffer opened the event in prayer, and HHC President Alton Darden welcomed everyone, made introductions and shared some improvements and developments happening on the cemetery grounds.

HHC Vice President Dr. Melvin Johnson then provided a brief history on Memorial Day, highlighting the key role African Americans played in helping establish it

“All too often, we tend to forget the past, we tend to forget where we come from, and in doing so, we tend not to understand what part WE — and I say ‘WE’ with capital letters — have played in the history of this country that we live in and that we love,” he said.

“At the end of the Civil War on May 1, 1865, in the great city of Charleston, South Carolina, the newly freed slaves held a celebration of the Union war dead,” he said. “That is considered, if not the first, close to the first celebration of what we now call Memorial Day.”

At the conclusion of his remarks, Johnson encouraged the people in attendance to do their own research into the matter so they can see for themselves the historical account of the holiday.

“And then you begin to understand that it is not a day to just take off from work, go shopping, go to the beach and buy things,” he said. “It truly is a day for you to go to a cemetery and honor the war dead who have fought, bled and died so that you may have the freedom and liberty that you enjoy in this country. That’s how sacred Memorial Day should be.”

Johnson then invited fellow board member and HHC Grounds Supervisor Elmer Bob Barnes to come up and read the names of the veterans who are interred in Helping Hand Cemetery.

“Bear with me,” Barnes said. “We’re going to take a second just to honor these people. They gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

The veterans buried at HHC are as follows: Herman Artis (1913-1985), Army; John Bailey (1936-2016), Navy; William Bailey (1910-1978), Army; Andrew Blow (1919-1958), Army; John Blow Jr. (1942-2011), Navy; Ernest Brown (1910-1986), Army; Lee Brown (1918-1981), Army; Samuel Brown (1916-1982), Army; Willie Brown (1940-1995), Army; Edward Bryant (1915-1969), Army; Robert Bryant (1914-1971), Army; Ryland Hood Bryant, Army; James Chambliss (1932-1986), Army; John Commings (1892-1931), Army; Bernard Darden (1926-1998), Navy; Horace Darden (1919-1980), Army; John Henry Darden (1917-1984), Navy; Shelton Darden (1947-2009), Army; William T. Darden (1908-1992), Army; Wallace Darden (1911-1976), Army; Elsie Eley (1896-1941), Army; Charles Evans (1931-2013), Army; Stewart Faltz (1927-unknown), Army; Kinnie Lee Faulcon (1915-1968), Air Force; Rufus Faulcon (1920-1961), Army; Robert Lee Gray (1930-1964), Army; Vernon Gray (1925-1970), Navy; Frank Harding (1906-1962), Army; James Hardy (1930-unknown), Army; Johnny Hargrave (1895-unknown), Army; Cornelius Harris (1918-1978), Army; Joseph Harris Sr. (1930-1995), Army; Harvey Harrison (1893-1977), Army; J.S.T. Hines (1909-1937), Army; Robert C. Hines (1895-1975), Army; Raymond Jones (1948-1969), Army; Charlie Joyner (1916-1948), Army; Otis Joseph Key (1918-1964), Army; Jethro Moore (1922-1970), Army; Emmitt Mason (1891-1968), Army; Vernon O’Vay (1925-1940); Henry Parker (1920-1994), Navy; Wilbert Parker (1924-1979), Navy; James Peterson (1909-1966), Army; Leroy Peterson (1923-1973), Navy; Thurman Peterson (1950-2005), Marines; Lawrence Reid (1924-1954), Army; James Scott Sr. (1914-2021), Navy; Scott Millard (1892-1959), Army; Ollie Scott (1893-1953), Army; William Scott (1927-1960), Air Force; Mack Smith (1920-1974), Army; Solomon Stevens (1837-1933), Co. B 2nd Reg. U.S. Colored Infantry; Joe Thomas Sykes (1891-1963), Army; and Lawrence Turner (1920-1982), Army. 

Coming forward and sharing details about Helping Hand Cemetery’s history was HHC Administrator Dolores Peterson, who wrote the grant and secured the funding for the cemetery’s historic marker that was approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

A printed history of the cemetery states that in 1897, the group that ended up being the original trustees of HHC “appealed to Mr. J.B. Prince to sell them a parcel of his land ‘situated on the left side of the public road leading from Courtland.’ Joseph B. Prince was a wealthy landowner, a judge and the Clerk of the Court of Courtland, Southampton County.”

Peterson noted that the trustees who bought the cemetery land as indicated on the deed were the Rev. O.G. Jenkins, Henry M. Darden, Walter Hardy, Booker Hardy, J.N. Epps and Jas. Blow.

“The deed for that cemetery is dated May 27, 1897,” Peterson said during Monday’s program. “Did you get that? May 27 — exactly 127 years ago.”

The address for Helping Hand Cemetery is 21452 Main St. in Courtland. 

“Why that area?” Peterson said. “Why did our ancestors buy that particular piece of land off of what today is Main Street? Back then it was Jerusalem Plank Road. It was one of the most dangerous roads ever traveled. The horse and buggies would go down there and fall off the planks.”

She also asked, “Why did Judge J.B. Prince sell that piece of land to our trustees?”

Beginning to develop her answer, Peterson noted that there have been a lot of unmarked graves at HHC, and she has long wondered where they came from. 

She said that about five years ago, she contacted Gloria Faye Hardy, great-granddaughter of Walter Hardy.

“I told her we were researching many of our unknowns in the cemetery,” Peterson said, and then she shared Gloria’s response: “‘Dolores, thank you for remembering those who have gone before us. I have prepared a list of Hardy family members who are buried in Helping Hand, some in unmarked graves, some in marked graves.’ She gave me a list of at least 26 people.”

During her remarks on Monday, Peterson chose to highlight eight of them. These eight individuals died in years ranging from 1876 to 1896 — all prior to 1897 when the cemetery opened.

“This kind of confirmed what I had always suspected, that this was a cemetery long before our trustees bought it,” Peterson said. “This was where our African American community members were buried, their family members and friends, long before these trustees bought that property. In fact that’s probably why they bought that property — because we were already being buried there.”

Reiterating her question of why Judge Prince sold the trustees the land, she added, “Well, I guess he saw that they were already using it as a burial ground.”

Then she asked, “But why this particular group of trustees?”

She noted that Prince was sometimes called “The Hanging Judge,” presiding over a variety of hangings. When people were hanged, there was always a reverend of comfort on hand, and that reverend was O.G. Jenkins.

“He led this group of trustees to Judge Prince,” Peterson said. “He knew Judge Prince because he was always comforting the person who was being hanged and the family of that person. So Judge Prince and O.G. Jenkins had a relationship.”

Peterson affirmed that the original trustees of Helping Hand Cemetery were movers and shakers who had favor and political connections in the African American community and, notably, beyond it.

After listing the names of the original trustees, Peterson said, “Now, if any of these gentlemen that I just named (are related) to anyone in here, would you please stand up?”

Quite a few people stood up at the program.

“These people are descendants of the original trustees who bought the Helping Hand Cemetery,” Peterson said. “They left you quite a legacy. They really did, and you need to learn more about them.”

Peterson concluded her remarks by reiterating some of the questions she asked: Why is the cemetery located in the area where it is? Why was it sold to that particular group of trustees?

“Because it’s all connected, and it’s part of the history of the Black community of Courtland, it’s part of the history of our Helping Hand Cemetery, and it’s our personal history as well, because these are our ancestors,” she said. 

She noted that if those in attendance wanted to know more, there is plenty of information out there.

“I suggest you research as much as you can because it is our duty to inform the generations that are coming after us,” she said. “They won’t know what happened unless we inform them of what our great-grandparents did, unless we take them into that cemetery and point out all of the prominent people that helped make this community the great community that it is.”

Near the conclusion of the Memorial Day Program, Alton Darden highlighted some attendees who have participated in one of HHC’s most successful fundraising events, which involves the creation of engraved bricks that memorialize family and friends who have passed away.