By Kerry Steinhofer
Briars, wild roses, weeds, dead and downed trees—in short, an impassable jungle—were the words Central Kentucky African-American Cemetery Association (CKAACA) member and cemetery volunteer Michael Denis used to described the condition of the Shelby City African-American Cemetery prior to the work that began in 2013 to restore the site.
Centre College has played an instrumental role in helping bring the cemetery back to life. Since the fall of 2014, several students have crossed the path of the cemetery, dedicating their time and energy to help restore the land.
“We believe it is likely that the Shelby City African-American Cemetery began in the 1780s, as the cemetery for those who were enslaved on the Isaac Shelby plantation,” CKAACA Director Cindy Peck said. “The military records of several of the members of the U.S. Colored Troops, who are buried in the cemetery, indicated that they lived on the Shelby plantation prior to the Civil War.”
In addition to those from the Shelby plantation, others buried lived on the nearby William Warren and George Givens plantations.
“The enlistment records of the men who signed up to serve in the Civil War at Camp Nelson revealed their connections to Gov. Shelby,” she said.
Peck explained how death certificates were not required in Kentucky until 1911, so CKAACA has relied on government documents, early church records, plantation diaries, the U.S. Census and historical newspaper articles to document what they know about those buried in the cemetery.
“Our mission is to restore and maintain the site and to educate as many people as possible about the lives and the contributions of the people buried there,” Peck said.
Centre’s connection began shortly after the initial start of the clean-up. Students who are a part of the Bonner Program have been involved for nearly four years. The Bonner students, with occasional others, volunteer nearly every Saturday during the school year. Several Centre first-year students volunteer during Centre Plunge, a service opportunity that takes place during new student orientation.
“Amanda Iocono, now a senior at Centre, was the first Bonner student to become a regular volunteer at Shelby City,” Peck added.
Along with Iocono, several others have become “regulars” at the cemetery, including Will Vineyard ‘19, Daniel Thompson ‘19, Trey Hughes ‘20 and Hannah Gibbs ’19.
The student volunteers at the cemetery have excavated around grave shafts, discovering important artifacts; cut away fully entangled brush and trees; mowed grass and weed-whacked small brush and weeds; reset and leveled gravestones that had fallen over; moved dirt from piles placed in the cemetery to fill in sunken grave shafts to facilitate mowing; and researched some of the people buried there, as well as the history of the cemetery and African-American customs.
For Iocono, volunteering at the cemetery has been an “amazing experience” that has allowed her to rebuild history and give back in a small way to the community she’s been a part of while at Centre.
“I have made connections with people I never would have met, and I have grown as a leader and teacher,” she said. “I am forever grateful.”
Thompson adds that his favorite part about being at the cemetery is the ability to contribute to the preservation of history.
“Having the opportunity to actually handle historical artifacts, write the grants for a nonprofit organization and work hands-on with the site is invaluable,” he added.
Thompson encourages other students and members of the community to volunteer and help support Shelby City financially.
“This cemetery would have been left nearly untouched were it not for Centre and its students,” Denis said. “We have received help from others in the community and from some students from Eastern Kentucky University, but without the Centre Plunge, Bonner and STAND and the devoted regularity of Amanda, Daniel, Will and Trey, we’d still be looking at another two to three years before we could finish.
“These Centre students have become ‘family,’ as they have come into our lives and we into theirs,” Denis concluded.
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