OUS students unearth cemetery

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

A class of Ohio University Southern students set out to find the history of a people, but what they returned with was the answer to a mystery: a shallow mass grave, hidden for nearly 90 years.

That gravesite, where at least 12 African-American miners and family members were buried, was dedicated as Sacred Hills Cemetery last night at a ceremony at the school.

The discovery came during a folknographic study conducted by Dr. Dave Lucas of the Porter Gap Road area.

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As they interviewed residents, a story was told to the students of an African-American cemetery hidden by time, a fact Lucas was skeptical about at first.

“I remember telling one of the students than a man in Mexico had told me that he knew where Noah’s Ark was buried,” Lucas said with a laugh.

But gradually, the story began to repeat, and the students and Lucas began to look for the cemetery in earnest. This was the story they managed to piece together:

In 1916, coal miners sent recruiters to Cincinnati who brought back 26 black families to work in the mines, at the time, a mining camp was set up on land owned by the Hanging Rock Mine company.

According to the data collected by Lucas and his team, many of those families were originally from South Carolina and Georgia. They gathered in a narrow valley now known as LaGrange Hollow.

Then, in 1918, their lives were shaken to their foundation as the Spanish flu swept through the region.

“We think anywhere from 12 to 26 of these people died,” Lucas said. “Men, wives and children.”

At the time, families didn’t understand the cause of the deaths, so bodies were hurriedly buried on a nearby slope, and the area was vacated soon afterward.

What was unanswered, the big question, was where the cemetery was located. No records of its location exist, so the information had to be pieced together through interviews, data which

By pouring over their accounts and microfilm of reporting from the time, a surveyor hired by the university managed to find the spot. It was then they discovered the biggest surprise: a gravestone, untouched for nearly a century.

It was buried underneath an inch of dirt, and is the only known reminder of the cemetery.

It has been hand etched with the single word: “Mills”, presumably one of the families who had been buried there.

Using radar, the school was able to find the exact locations of 12 graves, at least two of them children, though Lucas said there may be more.

The owner of the land has allowed OUS to place stones to mark the heads of each of the graves. A marker will also be set on State Route 650 to mark the location of the cemetery, though it’s not easily accessible.

“It’s up a steep hill, but you need some hiking shoes and be in pretty good health before you go up there,” Lucas said.

From interviews conducted in the region, Lucas said that the discovery could hit close to home for some families in the area. Lucas said he believed that families with the last names

Hall, Gordon, Mills and Kelly may have loved ones buried in the cemetery.

“These people, once lost to us, are now found,” Lucas said. “We don’t know their names, we don’t know their ages, but metaphorically they represent hundreds and hundreds of African-Americans who have provided great contributions to this region.”

As the ceremony closed, strains of “Amazing Grace” echoed through the Bowman Auditorium, as the gathered crowd walked past the stone to pay their respects to the 12 souls that once were lost, but now have been found.