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Northwestern Student Leads Cemetery Restoration

By Jennifer Becknell - news@enquirerherald.com

McCONNELLS --

17-year-old uses Eagle project to help preserve 19th-century black cemetery

Adam Jensen is fascinated with history. So when the 17-year-old was searching for an Eagle Scout project, his parents guided him to efforts that would play on that passion. The family's quest brought them to the historic Mount Zion Baptist Church in McConnells, which was founded by former slaves in 1863, and its cemetery. Some of the time-weathered gravestones were toppled or hidden by brush. The cemetery was filled with dozens of unmarked, sunken graves scattered across a large meadow. But the historic value of the cemetery - where the earliest marked grave dates to 1864 - was unmistakable.

"I saw what a mess it was here," said Adam, a junior at Northwestern High School and a member of Boy Scout Troop 276, associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rock Hill. "There was so much work, we needed to split it into two Saturdays last May." By clearing the cemetery, they stopped overgrown trees from destroying headstones and found several graves people did not know existed or hadn't seen in many years, Adam said. Clearing and cleaning the cemetery was only the first part of the project. It evolved into a nearly year-long effort that involved indexing and recording information and photographs for each grave.

The project was put in the archives at the Historical Center of York County at McCelvey Center. Adam also presented a copy of his project to the church during a recent Sunday service. Adam, who initially had considered doing a blood drive for his Eagle project so he could get it done quickly, said he is proud of his lasting contribution. The completed index locates 350 numbered graves on a map. In addition to the map - which is divided into zones for the roughly 7-acre cemetery - is a list of each marked grave with the deceased person's name and other information listed on the headstone, such as the dates of birth or death, as well as a photograph of the marker.

Adam said the members of the Mount Zion congregation helped him by sharing as much knowledge as they could about the sunken, unmarked graves, which he has marked with pieces of PVC pipe. His father, Mike Jensen, who works for Esri, a company that produces mapping software, helped with the project, using GPS to plot the location of the graves and placing them on a map. Adam's mother, Denise Jensen, a research genealogist with the historical center, said it's the first black cemetery in York County to be indexed, recorded and placed in the archives.

For his work, Adam was nominated in December by Strauss Moore Shiple with the Olde English District to receive the S.C. African-American Heritage Commission's "Preserve Our Places In History" award. He didn't win the award, but Denise Jensen said all the other nominees were organizations. 

Denise Jensen said Adam knew of her frustration over the lack of genealogical research material for black families in York County. The center has a great resource for white families: the Joseph Hart collection, which includes research on the area's early white residents. "But," she said, "there's nothing like that for African-American families."

The Rev. Anthony Johnson, pastor of the church, said the cemetery is one of the oldest black cemeteries in the county. The church, he said, was organized by the former slaves of those who attended nearby Bethesda Presbyterian Church. He said Mount Zion members had discussed cleaning the cemetery, but they had not committed the time and resources.

"They did not keep up the cemetery the way they should," he said. "There's a lot of African-American history that has died in cemeteries because we have allowed it to die," Johnson said. He added that some of the unmarked graves might predate the earliest marked grave. One of the obstacles to the cleanup, Jensen and Johnson said, is that instead of headstones, trees had been planted to mark many of the graves. The trees were overgrown. Some roots had destroyed the graves, he said. "There were no markers," Johnson said. Families of the deceased "felt that somebody would pass that information on. All they knew was that Uncle Bob was planted by a cedar tree. But since many families no longer have a relationship with the church, that information has died along with those relationships," Johnson said.

Lillian Gilmore, chairman of the Mount Zion board of trustees, said Adam has done a remarkable job. She said the church members had wanted to fill in the sunken graves to make mowing easier. But Adam took the project to another level, Gilmore said. Said some of the graves have no headstones because they were removed during a cleanup years ago, when she was a child. Johnson said he hopes people will use the information Adam compiled to find out about their heritage. "I think they will use that as a starting point, a basis for their search," he said.