NEW ALBANY—The Freedomland Cemetery, tucked away in the hills off of Paoli Pike, is easy to miss. Every day, drivers rush past the sign on the side of the curvy road without knowing what's located beyond.
But when you wander down the trail behind the sign, the historic African American cemetery eventually comes into view. Gravestones are scattered throughout the wooded area.
Some stones are engraved with names and epitaphs, but most are unmarked. Many of the markers have become buried by soil and debris over time.
On Saturday, community members will gather at Freedomland Cemetery to uncover and restore its gravestones. Matthew Kasteler, 16, organized the event for his Eagle Scout project.
"I thought it would be really nice to get people to know about it, because it's been abandoned and unnoticed," he said.
Freedomland, formerly known as the "Colored People's Burial Grounds" or the "Colored People's Graveyard," was created in 1854 and abandoned in the early 20th century. It is one of the oldest black cemeteries in Indiana.
Matthew and his father, Scott Kasteler, were inspired to become involved with the cemetery's restoration after hearing of the work done by Tim Allen, a New Albany resident who has voluntarily maintained the cemetery for the past six years. They met with him and decided to help him with his work.
Matthew had previously seen the Freedomland sign while passing through Paoli Pike, but for years, he didn't know what it meant or what was there. Now, he wants the community to understand the history that has remained unknown to so many.
By restoring the gravestones, they aim to honor those laid to rest in Freedomland, Scott said.
"I think by restoring it, it creates a higher level of respect and reverence for what it meant, whether it was the struggles of the African Americans at the time, or just the fact that there are actually people that lived and are buried there," he said. "That makes it a special place."
THE CEMETERY'S HISTORY
There are hundreds of graves located in Freedomland, but little is known about those laid to rest in the cemetery. Local historian Pamela Peters said there are few known records, and there are only about a dozen names listed.
She said there is a deed from 1853 for the cemetery property, but it is possible African Americans were buried there before then. Black people would not have been allowed to be buried in white cemeteries at the time, so the segregated burial ground was formed in the northwest edge of New Albany.
She said the cemetery's location is one of the indications of how African Americans were marginalized during that time period.
"It tells you so much about attitudes toward a minority that they were buried there outside of town," Peters said. "Back then, it was really out in the country."
Many African Americans likely did not have the money to afford engraved headstones during that time, which is likely why most of the grave markers in the cemetery are unmarked, Peters said. Many of the stones might have been taken from the creek running through the grounds.
It would have been the primary African American cemetery until West Haven Cemetery on West Street was formed 1878, Peters said. The last burial in Freedomland was around 1915.
She said she has not seen records that those running from slavery are among those buried in the cemetery, but it is possible. Many of the burials took place during the Civil War period, so at least some of them probably would have been former slaves.
There are about 300 known graves in Freedomland, but many more likely have not been identified yet, she said.
About 20 years ago, classes from S. Ellen Jones Elementary School played a major role in Freedomland's restoration. They renamed the cemetery, cleared pathways, cleaned up the space and put up the sign and other commemorative markers.
Peters said she hopes that the efforts to restore the cemetery will enlighten the public about the history of African Americans in New Albany.
"The history of minorities are often ignored," she said. "It's important that we know all of our histories, and not just the majority's."
PRESERVING ITS MEMORY
Allen grew up in Southern Indiana, and he guesses he must have passed through Paoli Pike thousands of times. But he didn't know about the existence of Freedomland until he stumbled across it six years ago.
In 2012, he found the cemetery while walking in the woods near his home at Knobs Pointe Apartments in New Albany. The cemetery appeared to be abandoned, and the stones were covered in leaves and other debris.
Allen soon brought a rake and started cleaning up the cemetery in an effort to beatify it, but he still didn't know the history of the place. As he learned more about Freedomland, he devoted his time and energy to preserving the cemetery and honoring those who struggled for their freedom.
"They deserve to be remembered," he said.
Throughout the years, he has made it his mission to locate and uncover the grave markers that have become buried over time. So far, he has found 272 stones and raised 39 to their proper levels.
Finding Freedomland has been life-changing, Allen said. He likes the serenity of the wooded cemetery, and he feels compelled to save it for future generations.
"I've been led by a stronger power to preserve the memory of these people," he said.
He is excited about the opportunity to restore more stones at Saturday's event, and he hopes it will amplify his efforts and inspire more people to become involved in the preservation of the cemetery.
In the future, Allen wants to see an accessible paved path to the cemetery. He has cleared a pathway from Knobs Pointe Apartments to the cemetery, but the entire trail is unpaved and difficult to reach by wheelchair.
He also plans to create a map of the cemetery showing where to find each grave marker. And in the meantime, he will continue maintaining and uncovering the stones to make sure they are no longer neglected.
"My responsibility is to make sure this place is not forgotten," Allen said. "It's a big part of American history that we're letting slide, and I cannot allow that to happen."