Friday, February 12, 2010

Campaign continues to save LePageville Memorial Cemetery

Campaign continues to save LePageville Memorial Cemetery
Author: Chuck Mobley
Coalition hopes to protect what's left of once-thriving community
Using her cane, 84-year-old Minnie Lou Robinson set an easy pace as she walked through the tree-shrouded path to her mother's grave in the LePageville Memorial Cemetery, a once-overgrown piece of Savannah history that's struggling to survive.
This ground, which may contain 500 unmarked graves, is sacred to many families, said Robinson, who lived in LePageville as a child.
Built in the late 1880s, the community was named for Robert LePage, the wharf manager for the Savannah, Florida and Western Railway. It sat between what is now President Street and the Savannah River, and contained 35 or so small frame houses that were rented to the railroad company's African-American workers.
Robinson stayed in one of those two-room abodes with her grandparents. "Everybody looked out for everyone one else and took care of each other's children," she said.
She moved out about 1950 or so, after her grandfather died, to Savannah. LePageville was leveled in the late 1960s as part of a slum clearance project.
The old neighborhood quickly surrendered to nature, and trees, bushes and weeds took it over. It became so overgrown, Robinson remembered, that she could not enter the cemetery, let alone find her mother's unmarked grave.
"There were old cars and tires all over," said Robinson, "and somebody was even living out here in a tent."
Then a tight-knit coalition largely led by some former residents and their onetime neighbors went to work to cut through that cover and to bring LePageville and its cemetery back into the public consciousness. The concerned group formed the LePageville Memorial Cemetery Corp.
Patricia Jenkins grew up in Riverside Gardens and Deptford Homes, white neighborhoods that were right next door to LePageville. Since the late 1970s, she's devoted countless hours to the project, even putting together a circa-1952 map of LePageville built on information she'd gleaned from old city directories.
"It's been a very long process," said Jenkins.
In 2007, the group's efforts led to the placement of the arch, gate and fence that now sit adjacent to Parker's.
But the cemetery still needs protection, said David Blount, one of Jenkins' childhood friends, and a longtime participant in the project.
"Man, you couldn't even see in here when we started," Blount said.
Now that it's largely cleared, and clearly marked, the memorial group hopes to raise enough money to complete a fence around the area.
"It's very important for us to secure this place," said Robinson.

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