Holly Oak Cemetery cleanup group

Historic cemetery brings community together
Published: Nov. 21, 2020 at 10:49 PM CST
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PINEVILLE, La. (KALB) - For about five years people have come together at a historic Pineville cemetery to do their part to clean the land. On every third Saturday of the month, Pineville residents and volunteers clean Holly Oak Cemetery on Holly Oak Street. The cemetery has controversy surrounding a rumored mass grave of Black soldiers, but people working there aren’t focused on that.

In the cleanup group two Pineville natives are using their time to improve the abandoned grounds. Brian Ussery says he stumbled upon Holly Oak Cemetery by accident, while volunteer Fredrick Nelson grew up on Holly Oak Street. They said it’s about bringing people together to help with community needs.

“God just spoke to my heart,” Ussery said. “It thought it was a horrible thing the way it looked. My church does a lot of community work and I was thinking this might be something we could tackle and really help the community come together.”

Ussery said sometimes people go out to clean on their own, but they can always use more volunteers, donations, supplies, or food for the crew. He said he was on the way to visit friend that lives in the neighborhood when he turned on Holly Oak Street and realized he was going the wrong way. When he first saw Holly Oak Cemetery, he said it took him a year to pray about the project. After that he and other people began cleaning the land.

“It feels good,” Ussery said. “Sometimes we do get discouraged and we don’t think we have the turnout we should,” He said. “But I will tell you when you come here and spend four or five hours working with people, when you leave here, there’s not a greater feeling,” Ussery said.

He described feeling satisficed from seeing the ground the Holly Oak cleanup group has covered over the years.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Ussery said. “I plan on hanging with us and seeing where the next step takes us.” According to Ussery his idea behind the cleanup group was to develop a group of people that would be willing to go do other things community members needed also.

“For people’s houses, to rebuild porches, mow grass or rake leaves for those that can’t do it for themselves and can’t afford to have it done,” Ussery said. “Just to go out and help the community and there’s always a need.”

Ussery explained that Holly Oak Cemetery is a Black cemetery and said the first Black Alexandria attorney Louis Barry is buried there.

“Some of the epithets I read out here, to the stories are kind of amazing,” Ussery said. “I would love to see the community come together, grow and learn from this. Nobody’s resting place needs to be in the shambles.”

Ussery said he’s been told the cemetery’s owner died and the land was passed on to his nieces who live in California.

“I would love to see more people come out and get involved,” Ussery said. “I don’t think you’ll regret it. It’s a worthwhile effort. I do it because I like to serve people.” Ussery is a grandfather and said he wants his six grandsons to know what community service is.

“I think it’s important to teach your children about community service,” Ussery said. “About things that don’t necessarily give you financial benefit, because the people that are doing this are doing it with their own their own equipment and money.”

“I encourage people to come out and you won’t be disappointed,” Ussery said.

He wants people to experience the fellowship of working in the community. After the crew worked, they enjoyed gumbo. Sometimes they’ll eat at the cemetery or at Ussery’s home nearby.

“There’s a lot of talk in our community about change,” Ussery said. “I hear all kind of talk, but I don’t see a lot of action. So, we need a lot less talk and a lot more action, but we have a great time.”

According to Nelson Holly Oak Cemetery is in the Smithville community.

“It’s about time for us to make a change in the community as far as keeping the graveyard up,” Nelson said. “The graveyard hasn’t really been taken care of since Mr. Smith died years ago. It’s gotten out of hand with many loved ones out here in the woods you might as well say, because that’s what we used to call it when we were younger.”

Nelson shared that when he was growing up the cemetery served as a playground.

“It’s a lot of history,” Nelson said. “I always tell people around the Alexandria, Pineville area, ‘If you are Black and from this area you have some relatives that are buried in this cemetery’.”

Nelson said Holly Oak Cemetery is a slave cemetery.

“That’s back when they were buried six feet deep,” Nelson said. “That’s the reason why you see the graves above ground now because it can’t fit up, because you’ll run into another grave.”

As for the five years of cleanup efforts Nelson wants other people to get involved.

“It would be nice if we get churches involved, more people in the community, community leaders, city councilmen to come out and help out,” Nelson said. He agrees with Ussery that if people couldn’t come out, they could give money, supplies, or food also.

They two Pineville natives also feel the same about teaching youth to serve their community. Some of Nelson’s children were a part of the cleanup group.

“It’s big on my part because trying to show them structure,” Nelson said. “Show them that it’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

He continued, “Helping people is really how you get your blessings.”

“Trust me, I know I’ve been through a lot myself in my life and without others it’s not possible,” Nelson said. “You always want to do it yourself, but you need others. That’s why I try to let my kids know about helping others, your communities, and then you can see where your time and your effort goes.”

To connect with the Holly Oak Cemetery cleanup group, visit their Facebook page.

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