Volunteers in Mobile working to save cemetery full of veterans from decades of neglect
A cemetery full of American military veterans was gradually overtaken by plants and other wildlife in the first part of the century, but a group of dedicated volunteers in Mobile has been working steadily to change that, with the goal of giving each service member the respect they deserve.
The group, which is now named Veterans Memorial Recovery Team (VMRT), began their work in 2017 and has made admirable progress. They say that just over 800 gravesites of veterans have been identified and properly reclaimed, but warn there is much more work still to be done.
Historic Oaklawn Cemetery, the location that had been neglected before the team of concerned citizens got involved, can trace its first burials to 1876. Historical records say as many as 10,000 people could be buried at the 22-acre site, which was almost lost to time before the VMRT began their work.
The Veterans Memorial Recovery Team meets for work on Saturday mornings from 8:00 a.m. until noon, and the individuals have created a 501(c)(3) charitable organization to which people who want to help the effort can donate.
A Facebook group dedicated to the effort has collected over 1,300 members. The VMRT clears the cemetery with a dedicated focus on finding the gravesites of service members.
Fran Barber-Bruyn, the vice president and secretary of the Veterans Memorial Recovery Team, told Yellowhammer News in a phone interview that the initial name for the effort to clean up the cemetery was “operation overload,” but said they have changed the name in the last year to help with the forming of the charity that allows them to collect donations.
The scope of the work cannot be overstated, as the decades of neglect that occurred as the land passed between owners took a serious toll on Oaklawn.
“We realized the size of the cemetery is 22 acres,” Barber-Bruyn said about the early days of the operation, adding that the group realized that to find all of the veterans buried at Oaklawn they must clear the entire area.
“Some of us are out there every Saturday, weather permitting,” Barber-Bruyn told Yellowhammer, noting that FOX10, the Coast Guard, JROTC, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and veteran-focused groups like the American Legion, Montford Point Marines, JAGVets and Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association frequently dedicate Saturdays to helping clean up Oaklawn.
However, the group is also constantly on the lookout for more volunteers, as the crowd that shows up week in and week out is usually less than 10. Those wishing to volunteer can get in touch via Facebook.
“Right now, we’ve got about eight acres,” she remarked about the progress made reclaiming the cemetery. Barber-Bruyn advised that 2020 had been a tough year to make progress because of the coronavirus pandemic and abnormally wet weather in the area.
The location of the cemetery is 1850 Holt Rd, Mobile, AL.
Barber-Bruyn told Yellowhammer that U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) will soon replace the American flag that flies at the entrance with one that was once flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Oaklawn was formally made a community cemetery in 1931, and for the majority of its existence served as a resting place primarily for Mobile’s black citizens, though not exclusively.
Records indicate that veterans from every branch of the military are buried at Oaklawn, including those who served in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf Wars.
Among those buried include members of famous black military units like the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, alongside many recipients of military medals like the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
A local chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Association, a heritage group, has taken a leadership role in the effort to reclaim the cemetery. The Buffalo Soldiers were all-black units in the U.S. Army who first served in the Wild West following the civil war, and the nickname was later incorporated into black units who fought in WWI and WWII. It is believed the Buffalo Soldiers buried at Oaklawn are from the World Wars.
Barber-Bruyn further detailed to Yellowhammer the challenges faced by the initiative to restore the cemetery.
“Since we’ve been out there in 2018 there have been four vehicles burned in the cemetery,” she relayed.
“There is a lot of illegal activity at night. One of the main things we’re fighting is people that come in and dump their household garbage,” she continued.
A Korean War veteran with expertise in bricklaying recently helped the Recovery Team build a new brick gate at the entrance, which Barber-Bruyn says has helped relieve some of the littering.
The Veterans Memorial Recovery Team lists its mission as:
To restore dignity to those individuals interred at Historic Oaklawn Cemetery.
To understand and appreciate the contributions Veterans and community leaders have made and those that they continue to make, on behalf of their community and country.
To promote public interest in the service of Veterans to the United States during peacetime, time of war, or armed conflict.
To show respect to our military Veterans by identifying, documenting, and preserving the memory of those heroes from all branches of service, who sacrificed in trying times and became heroes and legends.
Donations can be made here.
“We’re not giving up. we’re there to honor out veterans,” Barber-Bruyn told Yellowhammer.