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Group fighting to save Love Cemetery in East Texas

12:14 AM CST on Sunday, December 9, 2007

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News
lhancock@dallasnews.com

SCOTTSVILLE, Texas – Doris Vitatoe paused midway through a cut-over thicket, deep in a pine forest, and nudged a mangled bit of metal with her cowboy boot.

RON BASELICE/DMN
RON BASELICE/DMN
Doris Vitatoe, 67, visits the grave site of her great-grandfather Ohio Taylor. Many of the grave markers have been misplaced.

"That's a grave marker," she said. Eyes clouded, she resumed her tussle with chest-high weeds and wisteria. "Nothing left to read. Lord only knows who that is. My grandmother and grandfather – we haven't been able to find them in here. The metal markers were misplaced. ... It's so many of the little metal plates we can't find."

Legal entanglements have kept Ms. Vitatoe and her friends away from Love Cemetery and halted their long struggle to save it. Since March, they've been at an impasse over access with a Marshall lumber company that owns the logging road long used to reach the graveyard. So a story of race, place and redemption has been mired in corporate caution, and a black burial ground dating to slavery days is again disappearing beneath a curtain of green.

"When we got this cleaned, there was such a sense of jubilation, thinking of our forefathers. It was like they were saying, 'Well, it took you a long time, but you made it,' " said Ms. Vitatoe, 67, who lived away for decades before moving back to Scottsville, a village of 263 people east of Marshall.

"To have it go back like this now, it's got to make them feel forgotten," she said.

She and other descendants had regained access in the late '90s after being locked out for more than three decades. They got interracial support from as far away as Boston and Berkeley, Calif., after being joined in 2003 by a Dallas-born author with area ties.

The author, China Galland of Mill Valley, Calif., wrote a book chronicling the restoration and how it healed racial wounds in a county that once had more slaves than any other in Texas. But everything stalled just before the book, Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves, was published in June by a division of HarperCollins.

A second neighboring landowner allowed Ms. Vitatoe, Ms. Galland and others to visit last month. Now, they don't know when, or if, they'll get back in.

"We used to be able to go out there any time we got ready," said 84-year-old Nuthel Britton, a retired teacher. "I guess they're gonna start locking church doors after a while. Everybody's so afraid of people now. What are they so afraid of?"

A lawyer for Snider Industries said the company wants the group to comply with an easement agreement they signed a decade ago, to have insurance. Group members wonder whether a white cemetery would be treated the same way. But the lawyer says it's just business.

A common problem

Preservation experts say the problem is sadly common for Texas' 50,000 cemeteries and burial grounds. Though state law tells property owners to allow access to graves, it doesn't set penalties for violations.

"We get calls two to three times a week," said Karen Thompson, president of Save Texas Cemeteries. "We've had some we've taken to court. Some we still can't get in. You can get in right now if you have a helicopter, because there's nothing that can keep you out of that cemetery. But the Catch-22 is, it's against the law to trespass."

Gerron Hite, cemetery preservation program coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission, said rural black grave sites seem to have more access problems. Race is probably often a factor, he said, but no landowner balking at a grave visitation "is going to come out and say, obviously, that that's the reason."

The Harrison County cemetery's recorded history dates to 1904, when the Love Colored Cemetery Association was deeded 1.6 acres by Della Love Walker. The source was significant: Ms. Walker's father was a landowner, brother of legendary black cowboy Nat "Dead-eye Dick" Love and among few free blacks in Texas before emancipation.

In 2006, a state archaeologist found evidence of burials well before the Civil War. Jim Bruseth, the archaeologist, said it may hold more than 100 graves – fewer than half of which are marked. He said the site offers important glimpses into an era when black history wasn't written, a perspective increasingly rare as similar places have been lost in Texas and around the country.

Love Cemetery has a handful of tombstones with simple epitaphs: "Asleep in Jesus," "We shall meet again." About a dozen graves have temporary metal plates indicating a funeral-home burial. Several makeshift markers hint of life stories – a rusted gun barrel, a sewing machine leg, fieldstones and buried jars common to American Indian graves.

Steeped in tradition

Burials continued through the early 1960s. Some families clung to nearby land and homes that ancestors had worked lifetimes to have and hand down. Ms. Vitatoe's family owns her grandfather's 40-acre farm. Ms. Britton's family owns the 90-year-old dogtrot house where she was born and her half-Indian grandmother lived until 1964.

But the unnamed community of farmers and sharecroppers disappeared, and timber companies bought the land encircling the cemetery. Descendants say no one went to the cemetery for decades after someone tried in the late '60s and was stopped by a locked gate.

Ms. Vitatoe, a licensed vocational nurse, recalls her mother grieving about not being able to clean her own mother's grave. She said she inherited the same sadness, an ache "you never get over," because she couldn't tend to the burial ground until she was in her 60s.

"After a while, people forgot," said Ms. Britton. "The young people don't know because they've got no one to tell them."

Returning to East Texas in the mid-'90s after years away, Ms. Britton heard a woman talk of identifying every black cemetery in Harrison County. She decided she had to do something when the woman said she'd never heard of Love Cemetery.

"This is what I was taught," said Ms. Britton, who dons her sons' military camouflage, her own combat boots and a straw hat for cemetery visits. "We couldn't just let it go."

Her son Chris Britton of Fort Worth learned the National Guard repaired roads for community groups. He contacted the company that then owned the surrounding land, John Hancock Insurance Co., and got a gate key to their logging roads.

He also negotiated an access easement with the company as he tried to enlist the National Guard to fix the rough road through John Hancock's property to the cemetery. No one questioned a phrase in the easement requiring insurance. It soon seemed moot; the roadwork never happened.

The land around the cemetery kept changing hands. Tommy Brown, a Shreveport cardiologist, bought some for a trophy hunting preserve. He says the seller explained that the land held a cemetery and was bound by John Hancock's easement.

Dr. Brown said he found the graveyard several years later when he crawled into a thicket to study a deer rub and saw a huge upended tombstone. "I looked around and said, 'Oh, Lord, I may be standing on somebody's grave.' "

Loggers he'd let onto his land had cut and dragged trees through, breaking and scattering grave markers. A survey Dr. Brown helped fund last spring indicated that his building a lake nearby did more damage, taking a corner of cemetery land.

In 2003, Ms. Britton went to a Marshall gathering where Ms. Galland, the writer, talked of wanting to reclaim an unmarked slave burial ground. Ms. Britton introduced herself as "Keeper of Love" and explained that her cemetery, too, needed help.

Ms. Galland agreed to visit Love Cemetery and quickly fell under its spell. She traveled from California at least a dozen times over the next three years and organized an interracial band of relatives, Boy Scouts, area ministers and other residents to reclaim it.

Ms. Galland, 64, also found threads of her own past. Some Love families worked for a nursery run by her ancestors, and nursery wisteria cuttings blanketed the burial ground. "These people overcame," she said. "It's emblematic of history that's been lost."

Mr. Bruseth, the archaeologist, came at Ms. Galland's request, and he recommended a new land survey. Just before they took a surveyor in last March, Ms. Vitatoe got a disturbing call. A man explained that his employer, Snider Industries of Marshall, now owned the land they crossed to get to Love.

Insurance issue

Citing the easement agreement, the Snider manager said the group would need insurance to go in. Snider's lawyer now says the amount wasn't specified. But Ms. Galland said she called the manager, and like Ms. Vitatoe, was told it would take $1 million in coverage – which she later learned could cost more than $34,000 a year.

Snider's lawyer, Dean Searles of Marshall, approved the survey visit after Ms. Galland pleaded that the group couldn't get insurance overnight and signed an agreement personally indemnifying Snider.

Sporadic e-mails, calls and letters continued between the writer and the company lawyer through the summer and fall. One of Ms. Galland's Scottsville cousins says he was turned down when he asked in July to go in and mow the cemetery.

"I never said, 'No, you can't go in.' I told him, 'We need to get this resolved,' " Mr. Searles recalled. "You've got an entity that doesn't have any structural organization and doesn't have any money. Basically, it's part that they don't want to and it's part that they can't comply with what they entered into [with the easement]. Now they're coming to us and saying, 'Just ignore that.'

"It's not a situation where we don't want them. The problem is if somebody gets hurt or something happens."

He said Snider hasn't had similar issues in the six East Texas counties where it owns timberland. "If it was anybody's cemetery, we'd be asking for the same thing."

Exploring options

He told a reporter recently that his client may offer to help the group get coverage the same way that it buys insurance for hunters leasing its land. Like hunters, the cemetery association would have to pay Snider for the coverage – an amount that the lawyer said shouldn't be "anything very substantial."

The lawyer said the descendants could always go to Dr. Brown, the cardiologist whose land is also subject to the easement. Dr. Brown let the group cross his property before Thanksgiving. He said that he would allow more trips if they have no other way in.

But he worries that the dirt tracks they traveled are already nearly impassable. He depends on those track roads to protect his trophy deer investment, he adds, so he can't have them torn up.

On the November visit, after a long, dusty, ride, the group found the graveyard nearly as enshrouded in weeds as it had been in 2003. "It was like time stood still," said Wanda Gale Britton Jackson. The high school history teacher rode an overnight bus from Houston to accompany her mother, Ms. Britton, to the cemetery.

"We worked so hard," she said. "I don't know how many times we have started over."

The group hasn't heard from the lumber company in months. Some descendants have fallen away, discouraged that having a deed and even a law requiring access to graves doesn't seem to matter.

Ms. Jackson's brother, Chris Britton, predicts the graveyard will fade from memory: "There are too many obstacles."

Ms. Jackson says that would break promises to the dead and to the future.

"Our forefathers, they worked hard to have property, to preserve their heritage, their way of life. They did what they could to encourage future generations. When you don't take care of what they left you..." she said, shaking her head. "If you lose this, you lose your identity. In a sense, if we don't keep this, we don't know where we're from."

For more information, visit www.thekeepersoflove.com

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