“I wanted to place an American flag on my brother’s grave at Oaklawn Cemetery, but the weeds grew so high that I couldn’t get to it. I was also scared of snakes. It felt like I lost a part of him again. My brother was killed in Vietnam in a search and destroy mission. I was in the 10th grade when my mom found out about his death from a telegram delivered by a yellow cab. My mama never liked yellow cabs after that.
My brother joined the Army for patriotism and income. At that time it was hard for a Black man to get a good job in Mobile. When he entered the Army, there was still conflict between Black and white soldiers. Meanwhile, I was still walking to the back of the bus, drinking from colored water fountains and using separate bathrooms in Mobile. That was a scary time.
Blacks were buried at Oaklawn, and whites were buried at the Catholic Cemetery next door. Most Black families in Mobile, have people buried here. You could tell the change of seasons from the poinsettias on graves at Christmas and gladiolas on Mother’s Day. Neighborhood kids picked berries here in the summer.
Oaklawn became rundown when no one claimed ownership. The people who took care of the graves died or moved away. I worked the night shift at International Paper and there was an older man every Sunday morning mowing his wife’s grave when I came home from work. He passed on. I try to help care for it. At the entrance of the cemetery, there is a baby’s grave from a miscarriage. I met the mom here once. She said she came home from Texas to visit her mother and had a miscarriage. I put something on the baby’s grave at Easter.
After the cemetery became overgrown and people stopped coming, Oaklawn changed. There was traffic you don’t want out there. I have seen all kinds of x-rated shows out there while I was standing in my yard. People in cabs or men on lunch break in company trucks. People dumped trash or did drugs here.
I have lived next to the cemetery for more than 20 years and remember the 21-gun salutes for the funerals of veterans. I felt like no one cared about these veterans who were buried in a Black cemetery and they got lost. These are forgotten heroes and they deserve appreciation and American flags on their graves, just like veterans at the other cemeteries in Mobile.”
I had trouble finding flags and went to see Elbert Wingfield at Saucy Q Bar B Que. He was my classmate and a veteran. He said he would help with the flags and knew the right person to check out the veteran’s graves. Since then, Eddie Irby, the Veterans Memorial Recovery Team and other groups have come to help and clean out the cemetery. They have found about 820 veterans buried here. I am grateful that they are keeping up my brother’s grave and my path to get to him.
Oaklawn is slowly getting better and more people are coming back to care for it, but it has a long way to go.
Janie’s story is part of my story in Lagniappe, “Where the Brave a Buried” about the veterans buried at Oaklawn and the veterans who are clearing and documenting their graves. It is the second story in the series “Buried in Oaklawn.”
Here is the link to the story: https://lagniappemobile.com/where-the-brave-are-buried/. You can also pick up the free paper in the Lagniappe boxes.