Now abandoned and overgrown, Shady Grove Cemetery is all that remains of a rural black community that drew from the area around Dutchtown and former slave-holding estates. Fifty documented headstones remain hidden in the woods.
At one time, the Shady Grove area attracted blacks from surrounding small towns, such as Blomeyer in Scott County. Shady Grove School, a black school, was established just outside the entrance of the cemetery in 1889, according to the book "Rural Schools and Communities in Cape Girardeau County" by Christabel Lacy and Bob White. School records for Shady Grove cease after 1921. Louise Duncan, 77, who grew up near Dutchtown, said she remembers the school falling apart when she was a child in the 1930s and early 1940s; her father gathered the decaying logs and burned them one day. Her parents also attended the school for a short while.
Jean Estes, who owns land next to the cemetery, found several cut stones at the site where two descendants place the school. The stones appear to be the foundation of the building, but that cannot be confirmed.
The cemetery headstones date from just after the Civil War up to the early 1970s, but many have fallen over, are at an angle or barely legible. Some markers are engraved with the name of the deceased; others are simply railroad ties, upright stones or concrete blocks to mark a grave. Several grave sites have also fallen in over time.
According to the book "Dark Woods and Periwinkle: A Glance Back at Shady Grove," published in 1998 by Diana Steele-Bryant and Sharon Sanders, librarian for the Southeast Missourian, 240 burials are documented at Shady Grove Cemetery. At least five more burials have been discovered since the book's publication. The authors of the book compiled their census primarily by looking through mortuary records and obituaries from the Southeast Missourian and The Daily Republic.
The most recent documented burial at Shady Grove Cemetery was for Willie Dixon, a truck driver born in Mississippi who died Dec. 15, 1972. The earliest documented burial is for Helena Busche, a 5-month-old infant from Cape Girardeau County, who died July 12, 1887. In the cemetery census in their book, Sanders and Steele-Bryant list a man named Dowdy (first name unknown) as having died before 1880 and was probably buried at the cemetery. There is also documentation that says Winney Fulbright, born circa 1775, was buried in Shady Grove Cemetery; she died between 1880 and 1900.
Duncan and her brother, Silas Cardwell, 71, both grew up near Dutchtown and have fond memories of the Shady Grove community. Their father and grandfather were volunteer sextons for the cemetery.
Duncan remembers playing with her brother at the cemetery and discovering the old section of the cemetery on the other side of a fence.
"It was a carpet of periwinkle," Duncan said. "It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw."
The two siblings remembered going out to the cemetery every year on Memorial Day for a picnic and a cleanup.
"It was a big thing on Memorial Day," Cardwell said. "We'd pack a picnic lunch, some Kool-Aid, soda and have a graveyard cleanup. That was a tradition back in those days."
Many of Duncan's ancestors, the Cardwells and the Wilsons, are buried at Shady Grove, which is why she holds the cemetery close to her heart.
"It's just something that's always been in my life," she said. "That's where my family's buried at — all I can remember and some I can't remember."
Other people buried at the cemetery have varied histories, and many of those histories are recorded in obituaries compiled in the book by Sanders and Steele-Bryant.
At least two served in the U.S. Army. Washington Giboney, who died in 1897, served in Company G in the 102nd Colored Infantry in the Civil War with some of the first blacks to serve in the U.S. Army. Walter Lee, who died Sept. 3, 1961, served in World War II. Lee's daughter, Helen Lee, still lives in the Cape Girardeau area, according to Duncan. Lee could not be reached for comment.
Former slaves are buried there, and Duncan also said she believes the cemetery was used to bury slaves before the Civil War, but there are no markers or documents to confirm that.
Cardwell said his father, the volunteer sexton, maintained the cemetery until he became sick and died in the 1960s.
"I used to think it was his job," Cardwell said about his father.
Who is now responsible for the maintenance of the cemetery is a complicated legal issue that is not clearly explained in the Missouri Revised Statutes. John Fougere of the Missouri attorney general's office in Jefferson City, Mo., was not able to provide a definitive answer on the issue.
Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University, said, "Often a cemetery is associated with a church, but the church may develop a new one, and the old one is forgotten."
In the case of Shady Grove, the school building, which some think also acted as the church, no longer exists, and the task of upkeep has become too large for one person.
Steven Hoffman, coordinator for historic preservation at Southeast Missouri State University, said the burden is on community members to recognize the importance of the site and organize ways to maintain it.
Members of the black community expressed willingness to initiate a cleanup effort. Duncan said she had hoped to secure some grants to clean up the cemetery and thought she might be able to get her church, St. James AME, involved in a cleanup.
The Rev. A.G. Green, pastor of Rhema Word Breakthrough International Ministries in Cape Girardeau and the former NAACP president for the Sikeston, Mo., chapter, said he would support any cleanup effort at the cemetery.
Hoffman said he believes Shady Grove Cemetery would probably qualify to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Nickell expressed support to have Shady Grove Cemetery placed on the register.
"There is an obligation to see that that place is preserved, saved, cleaned up so that it can remain a historic site," Nickell said.
Southeast Missourian librarian Sharon Sanders contributed to this report.
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