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Historic cemeteries offer glimpse into area’s past
October 31, 2012
The scene set by a cemetery is often associated with horror movies, but historians and genealogists believe it’s more suited for documentaries.
When it comes to historic cemeteries, such as Mount Elliot Cemetery in Detroit and suburban counterparts like Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren and Greenwood Cemetery in Birmingham, these locales have more to offer in terms of history than fright.
“The cemetery truly is a very authentic history told for us, and the best part is you can find your place in it,” said genealogist Ceil Wendt Jensen, director of the Polonica Americana Research Institute on the campus of Orchard Lake Schools.
“It’s amazing what you can find. You might see a very humble marker, a marker that’s worn out from the rain or elements, and then at that local history room, you might find a transcription of that stone.”
Jensen has authored two books on Detroit’s historic cemeteries, focused on Mount Elliot Cemetery and Mount Olivet Cemetery, but she said she spends more time in cemeteries researching genealogy for her family and others who come to the PARI.
“We’re pretty lucky because the European tradition is to reuse cemetery plots, so you may find your parish or church, but you’ll find probably the gravesite has been reused,” Jensen said of why it’s easier to retrace one’s roots through historic cemeteries in America.
“And to know you have links to something that happened 150 years ago is amazing,” Jensen added of the experience that can be realized by visiting family plots from long ago.
“It’s really a human tradition to know who came before you and honor their experiences. And it’s pretty awesome when you see someone lived to 90-some or 100-some years old. You see the history, then personalize it to your own history.”
Along with learning about a family history, cemeteries can also offer a glimpse into a community’s or even a nation’s history.
Detroit Memorial Park East, near 13 Mile and Ryan roads in Warren, was the first black-owned cemetery in the state, and its history goes well beyond the famous residents laid to rest there.
“It’s 85 acres, and it’s run by a board, and we’re all related to the original (board) in some way, like my father,” attorney Roberta Hughes Wright said of Detroit Memorial Park East. “He was one in 1925 that decided he’d like to purchase the property.
“My father, then my late husband and now my son, so it’s almost family owned,” Wright added of the lineage of ownership and operation that is at the core of Detroit Memorial Park East.
“We do have quite a few stockholders, but there’s a lot of love, history and caring in it, and we can feel it.”
According to its website, www.detroit memorialpark.com, Detroit Memorial Park East was established because, “prior to 1925, blacks in Detroit suffered unspeakable indignities because of the white-operated cemeteries.”
These “indignities” led a group of businessmen and professionals to purchase five acres in Warren and build their own cemetery as “a child of necessity created by the city’s black community in its pursuit of racial pride and human dignity.”
“(Visitors) come to the cemetery, and I can take them around and point out Elijah McCoy and the Motown stars and some of the different sections of the cemetery,” Wright said of some of the points of interest at Detroit Memorial Park East, which include the grave of inventor Elijah “The Real” McCoy and Florence Ballard of The Supremes.
Wright’s late husband, Dr. Charles H. Wright, served as a physician during civil rights marches in the 1960s and is the namesake of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
“(Visitors) have to study it (the cemetery). They can’t just come in and ride around and get the feeling of it,” Wright said of the almost overwhelming amount of history at Detroit Memorial Park East. “But if they’re taken around and shown some of the cemetery and who is buried there, they’ll know what’s going on.
“To know the cemetery and know how important it was to the city in Detroit, it’s hard to say what (makes it special to) somebody who doesn’t know.”
But that history can be a hard lesson for some to learn, as they must overcome the cultural stigmas associated with cemeteries.
“A lot of people don’t like to go to cemeteries, but I’ve been around them all my life, so I’m used to it,” Wright said. “So I have so much familiarity here that it’s easy for me to feel at home and know the history.”
To help open those stories up to the masses, there are group outings often organized around the Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day celebrations Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
“The celebration of All Souls and All Saints Day has the roots of Halloween that was rather pagan, but there’s really a religious tenet that goes along with it,” Jensen said. “The Mexicans are known best for their Day of the Dead, and in Europe it’s called All Souls and All Saints Day.
“And here in metro Detroit, Poles and Polish Americans will do it again. They’ll go and clean the graves, light candles, and pray and read all the names of the families there.”
Jensen said that events, like those celebrations and ceremonies honoring veterans, firefighters and police officers, can give individuals an opportunity to experience the history of cemeteries and overcome any fears they might have.
“The next time a local group is going, go with a local group or speak with the director and make an appointment, so you don’t arrive when there’s a lot of work to do,” Jensen said, noting that public libraries and historians often can help organize tours.
“And maybe go on a bright, sunny day, so you have a positive outlook on it. And maybe go at holiday time, because people will be there cleaning monuments and decorating monuments.”
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