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She saves cemeteries, one at a time

By Lt. Col. Jefferson Wolfe, 7th Mission Support Command Public Affairs Officer | 7th Mission Support Command | Feb. 5, 2016

Kaiserslautern, Germany — DAENNER KASERNE, Kaiserslautern, Germany — A Louisiana woman’s goal is to save as many cemeteries as she can.

Myrtis Womack Johnson finds, restores and collects information about abandoned African American cemeteries. To that end, she is the founder of Save Our Graves Foundation.

“It’s not a big organization, but it allows me to do some wonderful things,” she said.

Johnson spoke about her work during Friday’s 7th Mission Support Command’s African American/Black History Month observance. This year’s theme is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.”

She hopes by talking about the conditions of the cemeteries, she will inspire more people to start saving other gravesites that have been ill maintained.

“I really don’t know why they are (not taken care of),” she said. “But I’m going to do as much as I can to get them all cleaned up.”

Johnson became interested in restoring gravesites when she visited a site where some of her ancestors were buried, in Greensburg, Louisiana. She was shocked that it had been left in such bad condition.

“I was just horrified,” she said. “I said this could not be.”

Johnson worked with a local jail warden to have prisoners help clean up the cemetery, and when the task was complete, she wanted to continue at other sites.

“This is what I want to do,” she said. “This is what I was meant to do.”

Soon after, Johnson found a cemetery containing what she believed was 13 unmarked graves. She saw the impressions, but no markings.

“The next day, something miraculous happened,” she said.

Johnson worked with an archaeologist from New Orleans who used a heat energy device to scan the grounds.

“It was not 13 graves,” she said. “It was 72.”

Together again with the jail prisoners, they put markers on all 72 graves. A local merchant donated all 72 headstones.

As word of Johnson’s work spread, another cemetery in Covington, Louisiana, contacted her to find out if the grounds were full, or if they had room for more graves. When they checked, they found not only was the cemetery filled, the people were stacked on top of each other.

As she works, she creates maps that are saved at county courthouses and libraries to preserve the locations in public documents.

“It is healing to learn,” Johnson said. “It gives you strength.”

One of the most important things she has learned by researching history is that the slaves came from Africa with many talents.

“In spite of all that they went through, it gives you a proudness,” she said.

In addition to Johnson’s speech, the event featured skits highlighting people from African American history. 7th MSC Soldiers and other played a variety of roles, including Juliette Hampton Morgan, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, a Buffalo Soldier and Grover Washington Jr.

Also, attendees sampled various kind of traditional African American food.