Thursday, March 31, 2011

TOP STORY >> ‘Lost’ cemetery rediscovered

By Christy Hendricks
Leader staff writer

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
Psalm 116:15, King James Bible.

Behind’s Dude’s Place, which sits at the intersection of Hwys. 38 and 319 in Austin, runs Ray Sowell Road. Located in a curve, somewhere along Ray Sowell Road, is Russ Cemetery, a cemetery for blacks dating back to the Civil War.

Come rain or shine, hardworking volunteers from all over central Arkansas will bring Russ Cemetery back to life.

“People who have lived here always believed it to be a Civil War cemetery,” said Cathy Gastineau, who rediscovered the cemetery last spring.

Gastineau had followed her daughter to a babysitting job, making sure she made it safely, when she noticed a headstone sticking out of some brush along Ray Sowell Road.

Gastineau started researching and found the landowner, and eventually traced the cemetery ownership to the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination. She contacted members of the CME, Old Austin Baptist Church and her own church, Old Austin United Methodist Church. Old Austin Methodist Church stands where a Union hospital was built during the Civil War.

Soon, a group was formed to resurrect the cemetery. This past Saturday, volunteers from the churches began cleaning up the cemetery in a cold rain, which was overrun with brush, seedling trees and more. What they uncovered was a taste of history.

There are markers for World War II and Korean War veterans. Some markers have dates as far back as 1918, and some as recent as the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the headstones have been broken or vandalized.

One marker bears the words “International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor,” a black fraternal organization established by Moses Dickson in Independence, Mo., in 1872.

In 1942, the group opened the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou, Miss., offering a 42-bed medical facility for blacks during a time when such a thing was nearly non-existent. The hospital operated until the mid-1960s, during integration, and unfortunately could no longer compete with larger hospitals in the area, according to

Gastineau and co-chair, Rev. Charles Holloway, pastor of St. James CME Church in Conway, have been working on obtaining grants to help care for the cemetery.

Gastineau says the group would like to put up new fencing, plot the cemetery and fix the broken stones over time. According to a March 21 press release about the cleanup, “It is the stated goal of the partnered churches to return Russ Cemetery to a more sacred condition and to provide for its future care.”

Holloway says several churches are involved with the preservation of Russ Cemetery: The Leach CME chapel in North Little Rock, the Beebe CME chapel in Wrightsville, the Pleasant Hill CME chapel in College Station, Old Austin Baptist Church and Old Austin United Methodist, as well as his own congregation.

“It’s important for the families to know that the remains of their relatives are indeed cared for. That the cemetery is made presentable, not deserted or in disrepair,” he continued.

Holloway is hopeful because the unity of people who have come together to work on the cemetery.

“From a racial standpoint, we don’t come together as much as we should. I see so much harmony from this. We have come to love each other more,” he said. “I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

For more information, to volunteer, or to provide information on those buried at the cemetery, contact Gastineau at 501-941-9339.