Cherokee-African American Cemetery

Submitted by Jack W. James
This is from my hometown newspaper. The cemetery is near where I grew up and I knew/know many of the people mentioned in the article. For more than a century, blacks in the area had to be buried at this cemetery as they weren't allowed to be buried in others. It is a beautiful place today.

May 2004

In the years just before the Civil War, the current Sebastian County was carved out of land that belonged to Scott, Polk and Crawford counties.

Greenwood was selected as the first county seat and much of the area that now encompasses Mansfield, Huntington and Midland was sparsely populated.

In fact, Mansfield wasn't incorporated until 1888, but south Sebastian County was already becoming an important area in a number of socio-economic regards. But pre-Civil War Arkansas was still a wild and untamed area, and slavery was still in force even in the most remote areas.

Slavery wasn't limited to just African Americans in those days, as some "indentured servants" of Cherokee ancestry also toiled the land and worked the fields of the expanding wilderness.

Because of the segregationist policies of the day, when these slaves died there was really no place that they could be laid to rest, and many of the earliest residents of the region were buried in unmarked graves in remote locations.

In some regard, that ended in 1858 with the establishment of the Cherokee-African American Cemetery in an are two and a half miles west of Huntington at the corner of present-day Highway 252 and Old Arko Road.

There are 109 identifiable graves on the site, with probably that many more graves that are marked with natural stones or large rocks with no inscriptions. Most of those unidentifiable graves are thought to belong to individuals who were born into slavery.

Some of the earlier graves are marked with hand-hewn stones that have not held up well over the years, but plat maps of the area from 1860 show in fact that the area was "an Indian graveyard" with many of the marked but unidentified graves probably belonging to members of the Cherokee tribe that inhabited the area in the mid-1800s.

Over the years, the cemetery has become the final resting place for many of the ancestors of those individuals, and is still used for interments to this day.

Eddie Hopper of Mansfield, a man who started enumerating various cemeteries throughout the region after he got involved with tracing his own families, genealogical background, did a grave-by-grave survey of the site in 2001 and posted his results on various Internet websites devoted to cemetery enumeration.

The surnames on the various graves in the cemetery still live on throughout the area with ancestors of those buried there continuing to make their home in the region. Names like Cole, Feimster, Hanley, Gentry, Hubbard, Hooper, Hutchison, Lee, Martin, Moore, Penney, Rogers, Smith, Spencer and Washington are well represented in the serene and quiet memorial park.

DeWayne Feimster of Mansfield whose father Curtis served as the mayor of Huntington for years says that numerous people buried at the site were ancestors of his family and his sister Ladonna, who died in 1983 at the age of 22, was laid to rest there upon her death. He also cites a great aunt and two great uncles in Fred, James Calvin and Ida Feimster who are all buried at the cemetery.

"I have a lot of family members buried out there," Feimster said. "The Spencer's, Gentry's and Moore's, we're related to all of them one way or another."

Although the cemetery dates back to the mid-1800s, the oldest headstone in the memorial park belongs to a Katherine Lewis, the daughter of C.F. and Belle Lewis who died May 29, 1881.

The latest interment at the site was that of Leonetta Jefferson of Fort Smith just last year [2003]. Ms. Jefferson was a longtime resident of Fort Smith but "her people" came from the Mansfield area, according to Feimster.

Maintenance of the site has been handled by citizens of the Mansfield Youth Wilderness Camp for the past several years.

"It's a beautiful cemetery and has a lot of historic meaning for this area," Feimster said.

It was the last Black Church still open in South Sebastian County.