West Virginia man seeks to preserve historic black cemetery

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Peter Miller continues to search for someone to take over the maintenance and preservation of a free black cemetery in Martinsburg.

He thought he had someone coming to the cemetery, which is adjacent to Greenhill Cemetery off East Burke Street, this past Wednesday afternoon to officially take over the care of the historic black cemetery; he even invited members of the media. But no one showed.

“I want to set up a permanent committee to take over the maintenance and care of the cemetery,” Miller said. “Someone who can coordinate volunteers to come in and clean it up. I’d like to see a fence installed and a spotlight.”

Miller, 64, took it upon himself to take care of the small tract in the 1970s after he first discovered it while exploring Greenhill Cemetery, he explained.

He said he has put in an estimated 900 hours of volunteer work clearing a trash dump that covered the graves and clearing the overgrown underbrush.

The cemetery is wedged between East Burke Street and a marshy wetland. The grounds cling to the side of an at-times steep hill, falling away from the road toward what was once a low-lying street known as Bull Lane.

The path of the roadway is still visible.

Driving by on Burke Street, no one would know it existed.

The abandoned cemetery is strewn with broken bottles, beer cans and other trash.

The concave indentations of graves are visible. Miller thinks there are at least 100 gravesites in the cemetery. There are several bases for headstones, but only three markers remain.

One is a plain white stone about 18 inches tall with the letters “L” and “W” carved into its upper corners. Another white block is about 6 inches tall with the letters “R” and “B” carved into its upper corners.

A third marker is about 3 feet tall and, while worn, its elaborate carvings are recognizable. Miller said it is the gravestone of Lewis Washington, a house servant of Lewis William Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington.

Lewis Washington lived at Beall-Air near Halltown and was taken hostage by John Brown during his raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Brown took Washington; three slaves; a sword given to George Washington by Frederick the Great of Prussia, which Brown wore during the raid; and a set of pistols given to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette.

Available records don’t indicate whether Lewis Washington, the house servant, was one of the three slaves taken by Brown.

Todd Funkhouser, president of the Berkeley County Historical Society, and others have researched the origins of several cemeteries around the county.

According to Funkhouser, the black cemetery was established at the same time as Greenhill Cemetery. He said the original charter of Greenhill Cemetery set aside a portion for the “colored” help or servants of Martinsburg’s residents.

Greenhill Cemetery was designed by David Hunter Strother in 1854. Strother, a native of Martinsburg, was a renowned illustrator and travel writer of the 1850s, who went by the pen name Porte Crayon.

He was the first journalist on the scene of John Brown’s Raid and was the only reporter Brown gave interviews to during and after his trial.

Strother was a cartographer for the Union army during the Civil War and served as ambassador to Mexico after the war.

The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Strother is buried in Greenhill Cemetery.

Funkhouser said the original “colored” cemetery in Martinsburg was on Water Street. In 1871, the Martinsburg City Council decided it wanted to build a water works project at that site. So, in 1872, the City Council gave the black cemetery at Greenhill to the “colored” people of Martinsburg.

Funkhouser said there’s no document deeding the black cemetery to the “colored” people of Martinsburg, and the city didn’t own the Greenhill Cemetery property. It was and is private property, he said.

“That tract belongs to Greenhill Cemetery,” he said. “You can’t deed something to the ‘colored’ people of Martinsburg.”

In the meantime, Miller will continue to look for someone to take on the caretaker duties of the small plot of land that is the last resting place of many forgotten African-American Martinsburg residents.

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