PARKERSBURG - Ancestral ties with Spring Grove Cemetery run deep for Pat Bannister.
Bannister, who is retired from the city of Parkersburg's finance department, is president of the cemetery association, which oversees maintenance and preservation of the Sayre Avenue graveyard that local historians say is the only black cemetery in Wood County.
"Land for the cemetery, about 17.5 acres, was acquired in 1891 by black members of the community as a burial place for their people. The price for the property then was $900. The land was owned by S.S. Cook and D.R. Neal. In those times, everything was still segregated and blacks could not be buried in the same cemetery as white people," Bannister said.
The property for the Spring Grove Cemetery was acquired back in 1892. An ironwork arch was erected over the entrance to the cemetery with funds raised by officers and trustees of the cemetery. The association president at that time was Hazel Watson, the current association president Pat Bannister’s grandmother.
"I got involved because my grandmother, who died in 1984, Mary Hazel Watson, was involved with the association, and my great-grandfather, Peter Brock was one of several black men who purchased the cemetery land," Bannister said.
The history of the cemetery, which now includes about 4 acres, runs deep. Those interred there include veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
"Some of the earliest graves include vets who served in what were called colored Union regiments in the Civil War," Bannister said.
Part of the cemetery was sold around 1988. Bannister said burial plots are still available at the cemetery and are available to all. The funds raised by the sale of the burial plots are used for continued maintenance and perpetual care of the cemetery. Bannister said the group is always on the lookout for volunteers to help with the maintenance and preservation of the cemetery. It is maintained with donations and fundraisers.
The association fenced in the cemetery after experiencing problems with vandalism.
Back in 1979, at the age of 91, the head of the Spring Grove Cemetery Auxiliary, Hazel Watson, Bannister's grandmother, set a goal of $2,000 for work on the cemetery. "That was a lot of money back then, but Nana, as I called her, met her goal," Bannister said. Mary Hazel Grant Watson was the daughter of Minnie Brock Grant, oldest of 13 children.
After the cemetery experienced continuing problems with vandals, trustees erected a fence. An ironwork gate was put up at the entrance to the historic cemetery. Bannister said repairs are needed for the entrance and exit, including work on the road.
Bannister said Cynthia Buskirk, with the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society, has compiled a list and histories of some of the individuals interred in the cemetery. The volumes are entitled, "People of Color Cemeteries and Short Histories." Bannister said two volumes are completed and available to view at the Parkersburg-Wood County Library and by contacting Buskirk. "She's working on a third volume now," Bannister said.
Bannister's great-great-grandmother Mary Brock was known as godmother of more than 150 Parkersburg residents and known by many others as "Aunt Mary Brock." She lived to be 104 years old. Born a slave in Virginia, near the close of the Civil War, she and her husband, Peter Brock, left to come to West Virginia. In a Parkersburg newspaper article written at the time of her 100th birthday, she recalled what seemed to be the predecessor of the Ku Klux Klan, called "The Patrolle."
She told the reporter "agitators would go among the slaves and whisper to them that a meeting was to be held that night in a little cabin with a slit for a door and a peephole for a window." In the article, she notes no sooner had everyone gathered than the Patrolles would come and everyone scattered. A portrait of Mary Brock, who for many years was a nurse and midwife, is on display at Sumner School.
The Spring Grove Cemetery Association is planning a ceremony May 25, which will be open to the public, with the featured speaker to be Bill Webb, of New York City, a Parkersburg native. His ancestor, George Edmondson, rests in an unmarked grave in the Spring Grove Cemetery. Some of Webb's family history is on display in Washington, D.C. Family records and records kept by Thomas Jefferson led to the discovery that Edmondson's grandfather, Brown Colbert, was a slave on Jefferson's plantation for a period of time. Cpl. George Edmondson joined the Union Regiment 127, Co. G, in 1864. Edmondson was living in Parkersburg in 1870, according to census records. Edmondson's wife is also buried at Spring Grove. There is a headstone on her grave.
"We need to step up for those who are gone and keep the cemetery going," Bannister said.
For more information or to volunteer, contact Bannister at 304-485-4437. Bannister said the group would like to have a website and be able to transcribe handwritten notations on paper maps to digital form to help others searching for their heritage. She said the group is also considering tours of the cemetery and looking into applying for National Historic Registry status for the cemetery site.
Officers for the cemetery association are Pat Banniser, president; William Ferguson, vice president; Angela Peacock, secretary, and Melanie Brown, treasurer.