“I grew up in Mobile and graduated from Central High School in 1966. It was right at the height of the civil rights movement and things were getting bad. We were sitting at the lunch counter and doing the same things they are doing now, but we were following Martin Luther King who was teaching nonviolence. I moved to California to get out of the South. I joined the Marines and got a job at Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Because of my size, I could fit into the torpedo room and I built torpedoes. My wife had a stressful job and the doctor told me she needed a slower climate. We moved back to Mobile in 1990. I drove part-time on the weekends for Yellow Cab. I was the only one with a credit card machine and I was making good money. I started my own taxi service and named it Diamond Taxi Company named after my daughter. I became a private investigator and I am about to get back into that.
My mother was raised in Gee’s Bend. My father died at an early age at 49 from cirrhosis of the liver. My mother raised six boys and two girls. I saw my mother on her hands and knees cleaning up for white people. It wasn’t the best, but we had the best upbringing. I was able to get a high school class ring. As a tribute to my mother, I still wear the ring and try to do the right thing,
My uncle was in the 92nd Infantry Division of the Buffalo Soldiers in World War 2. It was the only African American infantry division to see combat. I am now the president of that group. When I was first sent out to Oaklawn Cemetery, two weeks before Thanksgiving in 2017, you couldn’t see anything in here. I counted 57 Buffalo Soldiers. They are from the Red Ball Express and the 555 Parachute Infantry Battalion. They came to Alabama after the war was over, passed away, and were buried here. I was doing this on my own and after I counted 110, I had to get help. I told the South Alabama Veteran’s Council and the Patriot Guard Riders. I prayed, ‘Lord this is impossible, but nothing is impossible with you. If you send me help to get this done, we will get this done in four or five years.’ He didn’t just send me a couple of people, he sent me a whole regiment and we got a lot done in two years. We have found approximately 960 veterans graves so far. There should be more, but the families were talked into buying headstones instead of getting the free one from the military.
The cemetery was believed to have begun in 1876 and grew into a community cemetery in 1879. But the oldest grave we have found is 1917. Approximately 10,000 people are buried here. They say all of these are black graves, but that’s not true. There are white people buried out here also. Toulminville was once predominantly white and Jewish. The cemetery is 22 acres, but there are acres or so overgrown that we haven’t gotten into them yet.
This was a non-perpetual care cemetery that changed ownership several times. No one claims ownership anymore and it is up to the families to maintain the graves. It became forgotten and so overgrown that you couldn’t see inside. It was also used as a dump. We cleaned out recliners, refrigerators, and TVs. A few months ago we found a burned-out car. We started cleaning the cemetery and identifying the veterans and putting a flag on the graves.
Oaklawn was listed on the historical register in 2018, and we thought the City of Mobile would get involved and provide some money. That didn’t happen. The last communication we had was they didn’t want anything to do with the cemetery. It’s not just veterans from all wars buried here. There are doctors, lawyers, educators, artists, musicians, and civil rights leaders. People who made the country what it is. People who made Mobile what it is. Now they are thrown away like they never existed.
We have had to do this on our own. We had about 500 volunteers last year, many from across the country. We brought the military in here to help clean up. They brought bulldozers, cranes, and tree cutters. The Coast Guard and Team Rubicon made a big difference. There were trees and so much brush that had to come down. Once the pandemic hit, we took some time off and the groups stopped coming. A lot of the weeds have grown back fast and we have gotten behind, but it still looks so much better than it did. I am in the process of starting Operation Overload. I want to overload the cemetery with volunteers to make a difference. We have a program to adopt a vet and to keep a grave clean.
For years, the cemetery was used by drug dealers and the homeless. Cleaning up the cemetery has helped make the neighborhood a little safer. Sometimes neighbors bring us water or food and tell us thank you.
There are so many stories here. We have three brothers killed in combat in Vietnam. The Allen Brothers. They are a bronze star, silver star, and purple heart, buried next to each other. That was the end of the family name. Mr. Campbell taught at Dunbar High School. He was one of the first black military policemen. I marvel at the black men who fought in World War 2 because they were the beginning of the civil rights movement. They fought for their country then came back, built homes, and raised their families. They found ways to succeed and have accomplishments when the rest of the country didn’t even respect them as men. My uncle said they kept going because they knew people were coming behind them who were going to change things.
My goal is to open a Buffalo Soldier museum here and recognize the 92nd Division. Three hundred men left here for war and only six came back. They were part of the Red Ball Express that delivered supplies for General Patton and helped him go into Berlin. They helped liberate concentration camps and capture Germans. My uncle was shot in the side. When he died, he had a metal plate in his head. I lost him about five years ago. I went to Washington with his buddy in 1997 to receive his medal of honor. He should have received it in 1944.
I just turned 74 and I work with men who served under Patton, McArthur, and Eisenhower. The youngest one is 89, the oldest one is 102. We worry about what happens after we are gone. Who will pick up the torch behind us and tell the stories? If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you’re going? History has a strange way of repeating itself.”
(If you want to volunteer or help Oaklawn, email Eddie Irby at email@example.com)