Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Program could help restore cemetery


Role in history could be noted

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ANDERSON TWP. — A little-known 1999 congressional bill to identify historic civil-rights sites could be the salvation of troubled Hillcrest Cemetery, a federal supervisory historian told The Cincinnati Enquirer.

[photo] A COMMUNITY SERVICE WORKER MOWS GRASS IN HILLCREST CEMETERY.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        If it wins historic designation, Hillcrest would be eligible for private-foundation funding for the cemetery's expensive, and long-delayed, restoration.

        The 14-acre hillside cemetery is the resting place of 1,388 veterans from every war from the Civil War to Korea. Of those, 849 are African-Americans whose remains were brought to Hillcrest when racism denied them burial elsewhere.

        Decades later, that rejection might save Hillcrest, where erosion, vandalism, and the lack of ownership have left the grave sites in poor condition.

        Hillcrest is not a symbol of civil rights, but the lack of them.

        Today, Miss America, Heather French, will lead a tour of Hillcrest and attend a meeting of state and local officials. Ms. French, a Maysville, Ky., native and University of Cincinnati graduate, is the daughter of a disabled Vietnam vet.

        In a recent interview, she expressed outrage at Hillcrest's problem. Finding solutions has been perilous.

        But a new, potentially viable answer has emerged from Enquirer research.

        The National Park Service Act of 1999 was “designed by the secretary of the interior to reflect a certain social story,” said John Sprinkle, supervisory historian for the National Historic Landmark Survey in Washington, D.C. "And this one (Hillcrest) certainly would.”

        Mr. Sprinkle said it is unknown how many similar cemeteries exist. But if there are few that are its size, Hillcrest's significance would rate higher.

        Here's how it works: To qualify, Hillcrest must earn a spot on the national register. Recommendations are made through each state's historic preservation office, which takes applications locally, typically from the owner.

        “I'm not sure if we've ever had a dissolved owner, so that would be a challenge if we reached that stage,” said Steve Gordon, survey and national register manager for the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. “It's going to come down to local support, but those soldiers deserve the dignity.”

        According to Hamilton County records, burial grounds at Hillcrest off Sutton Road are owned by two dead men and a defunct church cemetery association. Its last “existent” owner, Hillcrest Cemetery Association Inc., was incorporated in 1926 and listed as defunct Aug. 5, 1991, by then-Ohio Secretary of State Robert Taft for failure to reregister.

        Ohio has 3,300 listings among national historic places, including Spring Grove Cemetery. Of Ohio's 66 historic landmarks, 10 are in Hamilton County.

        One Ohio cemetery on the registry is in Miami County, resting place of freed Virginia slaves.

        “Anyone can nominate,” Mr. Gordon said. “The first step is to have people contact us.”

        This marks the first time a lack of clear ownership wasn't an obstacle to getting Hillcrest under state or federal authority.

        “If there is money available, we definitely need to pursue it,” said Russ Jackson, an Anderson trustee.

        He said there are several plans to discuss at today's meeting, including a memorial wall to honor the 237 soldiers listed on county records whose gravestones cannot be found.

        The Union Baptist Church board of trustees, formerly a caretaker at the cemetery, is financing plans to create a nonprofit organization to assume ownership of the cemetery.

        Church records show it was given caretaker responsibilities in March 1932. However, county records show the church became a caretaker in 1966 but gave it up in 1985.

        The reason: money.

        That lack of active ownership has led to neglect. Hamilton County owns a 60-foot-wide slice of cemetery land but no graves are there.

Cost of upkeep
        Rehabilitation of the grounds was estimated several years ago at $250,000. But since then, local Boy Scouts and veterans have uprighted toppled tombstones, though so many had been washed away by erosion that it's impossi ble to know whether grave markers and coffins match.

        Volunteers have put in a bench and a directory, and have placed small American flags at each vet's resting place.

        But upkeep has largely fallen to Hamilton County's probation department. It sentences offenders to mow the grounds and remove weeds that had grown so high tombstones disappeared. But it's not a long-term solution.

        “For years, nothing was done, it was nobody but us,” said Dave Browning, a probation department supervisor. “I live out in Anderson, and it was frustrating to see nothing done.”

        State law says abandoned public cemeteries (not private or church-affiliated ones) become municipal, but Anderson officials say that would cripple them financially.

        No federal agency has stepped up. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs said Hillcrest could qualify for its state cemetery grants program only if it's state-owned.

        Ohio has no interest in assuming ownership.

        “This is a whole aspect of civil rights we don't think about,” said Patty Henry, a historian with the national landmark survey, which was granted $125,000 to identify sites and monuments important to civil rights.

Cost of doing nothing
        “We think of buses and housing and water fountains,” she said, “but this was literally cradle to grave.”

        The funding for 2000 arrived last week. Initial subjects include:

        • Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., where in 1957 nine black students were escorted to school by federal marshals as part of a desegregation plan.

        • The buildings in Kansas involved in the landmark 1954 court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education.

        No cemeteries have been considered.

        “What we realized very early on, when we had Brown vs. the board of ed, and Central High, was that we could look at an umbrella study of civil rights sites,” supervisory historian Mr. Sprinkle said.

        “And Hillcrest,” he added, “is that same sort of thing. ... It is an interesting story, and it's certainly one of the places that makes an interesting sidelight.”

        A historic site or landmark designation provides no direct funding for upkeep, but many charitable trusts do, including Getty and Pew.

        Problem: those grants are “matching,” meaning local fund-raisers would be needed.

        Meanwhile, the soldiers of Hillcrest remain as they were: voiceless.

        Allen Howard contributed to this report.

       



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