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Groups work to recognize unmarked graves in Louisville and Southern Indiana

A lone tombstone sits in a field in the foreground, with more behind a line of trees further back.
Giselle Rhoden
Community members and local leaders recently gathered at Louisville's Saint Louis Cemetery to pay respects to Black people buried in unmarked graves there.

Cemeteries in Louisville and Southern Indiana are part of an effort to identify the resting places of free and enslaved Black residents from the region's past.

Without a headstone to mark their memories, the names of many free and enslaved Black Americans were nearly lost to time for decades after their deaths.

Burial grounds in Louisville and Southern Indiana are still uncovering their stories.

Saint Louis Cemetery in the Tyler Park neighborhood is known as a final resting place for members of the Catholic faith.

In an empty field sectioned off by a line of trees in the back corner of the cemetery, there are more than 1,200 Black men, women and children in unmarked graves. Another 400 are in a nearby lot.

Louisville leaders and community members gathered at the site recently to honor them. They called out each name, ringing a bell occasionally to pay respects. They read 1,630 names in total.

A group of people gathered at Saint Louis Cemetery
Giselle Rhoden
Kentucky Senators and Representatives, community leaders, city officials and Catholic clergy were among the dozens of people who read all 1,630 names of Black residents buried at the cemetery.

Hannah Drake, a political activist from Louisville, helped organize the remembrance ceremony with her organization The (Un)Known Project, an initiative that identifies the names and stories of free and enslaved Black Americans from the past.

“I always tell people, no one is unknown. They're just hidden,” Drake said. “We have hidden them from history.”

Ned Berghausen, a deacon at St. Agnes Church, said he and the racial justice group the Sister Thea Bowman Society spent over a year combing through records from the Archdiocese of Louisville. They spanned from 1867, when Saint Louis Cemetery opened, until 1937.

With their research, they uncovered names like Simeon Battiste, one of Kentucky's first Black doctors who is buried in the cemetery’s back plot without a headstone. Among others, the team and Drake were able to find Civil War veterans, conductors on the Underground Railroad, former Buffalo Soldiers, and hundreds of enslaved Black men, women and children.

Berghausen added a family tree to Ancestry.com for each Black Kentuckian he discovered in the cemetery’s records.

“Everybody deserves to find their roots and to have their ancestors remembered,” he said. “I hope this project can help people to find their ancestors and to have a place where they can remember them, and recognize that they mattered as well.”

While searching death records is more accessible, delving into someone’s life in enslavement is a difficult task, Drake said.

“When you research, what you have to understand — sadly — is that you are not going back necessarily looking for a human being. You're going back and looking for property,” Drake said. “So you need to look at wills because the will is going to list people as property.”

Although the search can be disheartening, Drake said uncovering the names and stories she found with Berghausen and his team are important.

“They were people with dreams and hopes and aspirations and lives. They were human beings,” Drake said.

Efforts in Southern Indiana

It was not uncommon for Black residents in Southern Indiana and Louisville to be buried in different plots than their white neighbors in previous eras.

In New Albany, Freedomland cemetery is the final resting place for 300 Black men, women and children. It’s tucked away in a heavily wooded area alongside the winding roads of Paoli Pike.

Originally named The Colored Peoples Burial Ground in the 1850s, Freedomland was one of the only places where Black Hoosiers could be buried until 1915, according to Pam Peters, author of “The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana.”

In the early 2000s, a group of students from S. Ellen Jones Elementary built commemorative markers and benches, picked up trash and planted flowers at the cemetery. Other community members used creekstone as grave markers at the site, but most of the makeshift headstones are still empty.

Peters said only 20 people have been identified at Freedomland. Among them are Black Freemasons, veterans from the United States Colored Troops and former enslaved people.

“There were no records kept by anybody … because the five men who were the original caretakers, or head of this cemetery, had been enslaved,” Peters said. “They didn't know how to read. They didn't know how to write to no fault of their own.”

Peters went to Freedomland recently for the first time in a year. It’s now privately owned, and few people have been allowed in for proper upkeep since around 2021.

Since her last visit, trees had uprooted and collapsed on top of several benches and headstones. Many of the commemorative markers were covered in fallen branches and broken roots. Peters struggled to walk through the cemetery that is now engulfed in overgrown brush.

“This gives you a feel for what I mean when I'm saying ‘neglected,’” she said. “Such an important burial ground should not be left like this.”

The Floyd County Board of Trustees began cleaning up the fallen trees and other debris at Freedomland in March, but Peters said there is still more to be done for one of the oldest Black cemeteries in Indiana.

“People over the years told me that the history was lost [and] that I wouldn't find much. Not true,” she said. “You just have to take the time to look.”

Ten minutes away from Freedomland in downtown New Albany, the search for a Black cemetery in a vacant lot is taking shape on State Street.

“It's never ever been developed,” said Floyd County historian Dave Barksdale. "It's just sort of landlocked, but we know exactly where it is.”

Barksdale said he found a deed a year ago from a group named the First African Society, which purchased the land in 1830.

“Come to find out there was actually a church that faced State Street that this congregation had, that abutted this land, so it makes sense that they would have a cemetery in connection with the church,” he said.

After combing through centuries-old city maps, Barksdale said he discovered a square plot next to where the church stood labeled “graveyard.”

The church has since disappeared, and Barksdale said the plot on State Street has been empty for many years. With a group of community members, he said they found about a dozen spots with human remains buried beneath the plot.

Barksdale hopes he will be able to further investigate the plot.

“We just want to make it a sacred place and tell the history of what went on there,” he said.

Barksdale and others involved in these efforts in Southern Indiana and Louisville see themselves as part of a larger movement — to recognize and remember the names of Black people from the region’s past, so they aren’t forgotten.

This story has been updated.

Giselle is LPM's breaking news reporter. Email Giselle at grhoden@lpm.org.

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