POCAHONTAS, Ark. (AP) — Enslaved during life and neglected in death. Nestled in the woods just north of Pocahontas, Friendship Cemetery had fallen into a dilapidated state. Vegetation covered most of the graves. Trees sprung between buried bodies.
In 2007, Pat Johnson and Cindy Robinett decided to clean up the largest African-American cemetery in the county. The two uncovered a few headstones and one drew Johnson's attention.
Etched in the stone was the name Emma Finley —Johnson's grandmother who died from pneumonia in 1929. She never met Emma and had no idea she was buried there.
“I just remember being really excited,” Johnson said. “It was such a deep feeling. It was like I found a part of me out here.”
Friendship Cemetery was established on a five-acre lot in 1868 after the Civil War. Documents show that the Colored Union Aid Society bought the land so blacks could have a burial place.
At least 85 graves have been identified but Robinett, a local historian and genealogist, thinks the number is much higher. Only a few gravestones remain but the way several are positioned indicate there could be as many as 130 graves, she said.
Robinett used records such as death certificates to identify some of the people interred there. At least 15 people buried in the cemetery were slaves at one time, Johnson said.
An estimated 350 slaves lived in the county before the Civil War. One of them was Armstead Looney, born in 1850 on the famed Looney Tavern farm near Dalton. The Looneys were among the first families to settle Arkansas. The tavern they built is one of the oldest buildings in the state and has recently been restored.
Looney was reported to have “very light skin” and lived on the farm after being freed. Robinett believes that Armstead Looney was conceived in a liaison between a member of the Looney family and a slave named Rose. Robinett can't prove her theory but she's hopeful that someday DNA testing can be done on Looney's relatives to prove a genetic connection.
Friendship Cemetery is one of several African-American cemeteries being revitalized in Northeast Arkansas.
Scott Cemetery, just outside of Walnut Ridge, has been renovated in recent years. Headstones have been repaired and replaced.
Archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar in 2007 to find graves and determine how many new tombstones were needed. Arkansas State University archaeologist Dr. Julie Morrow helped spearhead the project.
The research cost $10,000. The Hill Found-ation, the organization doing the work, received a grant to pay the cost.
A few gravestones at Friendship have an engraving of a finger pointing toward the sky. Johnson had to research what that meant.
“It means ‘I'm going home,’” she said.
In 2000, Johnson helped to start a project that is now the Eddie Mae Herron Center, a museum dedicated to black culture and history in Randolph County. Blacks make up only about 2 percent of the population in the county and Johnson was afraid their heritage would be lost.
The building that houses the Eddie Mae Herron Center started as a church and later became
the Pocahontas Colored School during segregation. Johnson and others researched information about the founders of the center, she said.
That's what led her to the cemetery.
“A lot of them are buried out here,” Johnson said.