Progress and Adversity at Freedomland Cemetery
Tim Allen, a Truck Coordinator here at Mercer Transportation, has spent eight years rallying volunteers to clean up an abandoned cemetery near New Albany, Indiana. In the two years since we last covered his story, Tim has encountered dozens of motivated volunteers and a couple significant obstacles. His campaign to preserve and recover history has gained visibility, attracting more than 400 followers on Facebook. “So, we’re really moving along as far as the awareness factor and the interest in the project and the history that goes along with this,” Tim, explained. “It is so critical that we try and cultivate that and nurture it for the future generations. And the only way to do that is to keep telling the story.” Along the way, he has also encountered roadblocks that will need to be navigated with the help of local officials. Like many things in 2020, Tim’s community service project is on a temporary slowdown, but there’s every reason to expect a bigger and better tomorrow.
Located off Paoli Pike in Floyd County, the historic cemetery was originally listed simply as “Colored People’s Burial Ground.” Surviving records suggest that around 300 people were buried between 1854 and 1915. With the hilly, wooded terrain and unmarked tombstones that can be 12 inches underground, Tim believes that the cemetery may be significantly older and larger. Whatever year it started; the cemetery represents an important part of local history for anyone near the Ohio River. Many that died trying to find their freedom, are laid to rest at Freedomland Cemetery. The caretaker’s building that Tim and crew are still trying to dig out, not only served to prepare them for their final resting place but is thought to have also been used as part of the Underground Railroad.
In a time when controversial news stories focus on present-day tragedies, a segregated cemetery can provide much-needed context and historical perspective. From slavery to segregation, race has been a divisive political issue since the American Revolution, but it’s important to remember that we’ve come a long way since 1850. In groups of 10 to 25, even as many as 50 people, volunteers have freely given their time to help Tim preserve this important part of history. “Anytime anybody comes down to Freedomland and spends an hour or so… they take from that an experience they won’t ever forget. And the peace and tranquility at this place is just unparalleled from anywhere that I’ve ever been,” Tim, from Mercer Transportation said. “And I was in the Navy for quite a long time and have been around the world and seen a lot of peaceful places, but what I share back at Freedomland is something that I hadn’t had before.”
Naturally, 2020 brought some unexpected challenges, especially at Mercer Transportation. As COVID-19 became a cause for concern, the great outdoors allowed volunteers to practice social distancing, so it was possible to continue working. Tim said, “When you have a 6-acre land mass that we’re dealing with at Freedomland, there is plenty of space for people to move around out there. It’s as COVID safe as you could probably hope for.” There were also new opportunities as a local graduate from Floyd Central High School returned home to avoid rising COVID numbers in NYC. With a background in film production, the young man was able to record footage for a short documentary about Freedomland. Tim’s hope is that the documentary should be available soon for publicity on social media.
In a side effort that Mercer’s Tim Allen has dubbed “the Lazarus Project,” volunteers continue to excavate the 16 by 14-foot caretaker’s building on site. The structure has turned out to be bigger than Tim initially thought, but there’s a lot that remains to be uncovered. “I’ve moved probably 5 tons of earth off it. With that estimate, conservatively, we probably have another 20 tons of dirt to go.” With the discovery of broken pottery shards, digging around the caretaker’s building has been left to volunteers with an interest in slow and careful archeology work.
Mercer Transportation is incredibly proud. Since our last update, Tim Allen was recognized with the Kathryn Hickerson Award for demonstrating involvement in the community, promoting cultural awareness and an appreciation of diversity by modeling respect for all. The Freedomland project has also appeared in local news. The biggest recent news story has been a question about defining a public right-of-way. A locked gate on the side of Paoli Pike provides the main access to the cemetery. When the lock was changed and “no trespassing” signs appeared, it became clear that the owner of the private property adjacent to the cemetery had concerns about the public use of that gate.
As the burial place for hundreds of bodies, the cemetery itself belongs to the state, but the line between public and private property hasn’t been clearly maintained. At least a couple dozen graves also seem to be buried on private property, though clearer maps of the area may be needed. According to Tim, the last documented way for the public to access the cemetery was an old wagon trail. As Tim explained, “When it was given to the state, the title work wasn’t done properly. So, we’re talking about correcting something from almost two centuries ago.” The hope is that a land purchase will allow the public to safely visit the historic site without infringing on anyone’s private property rights. While the property issue is being resolved, Tim has suspended work on the cemetery and has had to cancel cleanup events.
Over the past eight years, Tim has built up a lot of public support for this cause, involving local schools, Mercer Transportation, Eagle Scouts, an Indiana State Representative, a City Councilman, and members of the historical society. Students from S. Ellen Jones Elementary created signs with quotations and numbered markers for the graves. David Brewer, a New Albany Township Trustee, has recently been working on a proposal for the September budget, defining the cemetery property and publicly accessible trail.
A parking area and trail would make the cemetery more accessible to visitors who want to learn about local history. Vehicle access would also help individual caretakers like Tim when they complete a day of hard work and still need to return carrying heavy tools and equipment. For Tim, it’s a matter of looking out for posterity, “I’ve got to be able to get back there. Whoever in my absence will be taking care of this place one day, they will be needing the same thing. This isn’t just for my convenience. This is not my project; this is not my cemetery. I’m not the one in charge; I’m just the one that is spearheading the effort to keep this from extinction.”
While Tim has been successful with organizing volunteers and clearing land, he has struggled to make headway in certain areas. He hoped to get the site registered as a historic landmark with the DNR, but the process involved more complicated paperwork than expected. Focusing his own efforts on the physical clearing and maintenance of the cemetery, Tim hopes that other volunteers with relevant skills may be able to help with paperwork like registries and grant applications. Whether you’ve got an ambitious community project or a series of flatbed shipments to manage, you’ll need people with different skills and roles working together. Whatever happens in the coming months, Tim’s broader goal is clear: “Make sure that people keep picking up where others leave off and don’t let it lie in rest and be forgotten again. My main objective has always been that—just to keep Freedomland’s belief alive. You know that it’s a national relic and we need to treat it as if it’s our home because it is right in our backyard here.”
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