The buzz of string-trimmers filled the air Saturday morning as a small army of volunteers from several civic and church groups cleaned up the historic Lutheran Cemetery between Brooks Park and City Park in “old” South Baton Rouge.
Two dozen teenagers, part of a 100 Black Men mentorship program, joined several dozen other volunteers from Friends of City Park, Trinity Lutheran Church, Greater St. James Baptist Church, South Baton Rouge Civic Association, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and some neighborhood residents to clear away a summer’s worth of landscape neglect.
The overgrown, 8-acre cemetery, shaded in spots by giant oak trees, includes about 7,000 known graves, some dating to the late 1800s, and numerous unmarked ones — possibly slave graves.
“This is a hallowed place,” said Kenny Kleinpeter, a volunteer who has spent countless hours working on this and other historic cemeteries in the Baton Rouge area.
Just over a low ridge, the Baton Rouge Fault dividing the oldest section from the newer section that lies along Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive, he pointed to numerous depressions suspected of being the unmarked graves of slaves from the nearby Richland Plantation — what is now City Park.
“To me, those are the forgotten of the forgotten,” Kleinpeter said. “This is a sacred place that needs to be taken care of.”
The land was purchased in 1899 by the Lutheran Benevolent Society, a group founded in 1872 in New Orleans, said Lillie Petit Gallagher, a Friend of City Park and a cleanup organizer.
“We think there were earlier burials here and it makes sense that it was a slave cemetery,” Gallagher said.
Sadie Roberts-Joseph, director of the Odell S. Williams Now and Then Museum of African-American History, said the historic cemetery should be listed on the National Register.
She said she was glad to see all the teenage boys in the 100 Black Men mentorship program operating trimmers, and pulling and piling armloads of weeds into piles.
“We’ve got a lot of young men who are doing good things and this is a great opportunity to showcase what they are doing,” Roberts-Joseph said. “They are giving back to the dead and you can’t expect anything in return. It is a great lesson for us all.”
At the top of the hill, Chris Robertson, 32, was trimming around a cluster of above-ground graves, including one of his aunt. He was also glad, he said, to see the teens because, “We got a lack of parenting goin’ on. They need to learn how to work. Life ain’t easy.”
Michael W. Victorian, president of the local chapter of 100 Black Men, said its “Project Excel” is designed to provide African-American boys and teenagers, many of whom do not have fathers in their homes, with adult mentors. About 20 of the 50 youth in the program, from fifth grade to high school, were working Saturday.
“It is essential to not only teach them where we are, where we’ve been and where we are going, but we also have to teach them service so they can mentor the next generation,” Victorian said.
He said the cemetery cleanup “teaches them respect for the legacy of those who have come before them.”
Project Excel members taking part Saturday included Mikelan Taylor, 13, who was pulling weeds and Dewayne Curry, 16, who was carrying armloads of them to a nearby pile for disposal.
“It’s hard work,” Taylor said. “I’m learning how to be responsible and help my parents out.”
The Rev. Dave Buss, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, was pleased with the coordination of his church, the Friends of City Park and the 100 Black Men.
“We’re doing this because we all love the community,” Buss said.
Friends of City Park member Kleinpeter said they are hoping the site will generate further exploration, especially with some archaeological digs to determine the extent of the slave graves.
Gallagher said she is hoping someday that the cemetery will be adopted by BREC into its system as “sacred space” since the property sits between two established parks.
“It’s one of the most beautiful spots in all of Baton Rouge,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This story was changed Oct. 13, 2014, to reflect the correct identification of Sadie Roberts-Joseph. In an earlier version, she was identified as Sadie Roberts-Jones.