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Volunteers working to fix Muskogee cemetery

Posted at 10:08 AM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-16 11:08:55-04

Alongside Highway 69 in Muskogee, part of Booker T. Washington Cemetery is under repair, after a group of volunteers recently discovered headstones and graves long forgotten.

If you walk past the flowers and well maintained headstones you will end up in the south end of the cemetery. 

That is where lately you can find Dennis Wilhite with a rake in hand.

"This is an entry way into Muskogee and I want people to understand that in Muskogee we take care of our veterans," Wilhite said. 

He came to the cemetery on Memorial Day along with his wife. They came to put flags by the gravestones of veterans and ended up needing more than 100 flags. 

But then they found gravestones in the southern part of the cemetery covered by brush. They found even more further back, in what is now a wooded area.

"You can see, we can't even see the name of this veteran that was here," Wilhite said as he brushed a thick layer of dirt off one headstone.

For several weeks now they have been gathering and burning away the brush, alongside several volunteers including Muskogee City Councilor Marlon Coleman.

"This is part of the brush we haven't been able to work on yet," Coleman said as he walked through the wooded area.

"We just noticed one here, one the you can see top-sided," he mentioned as he pointed to several recently found graves. 

The mission is to have the cemetery in order by Veterans Day of this year, so they can properly honor the veterans buried in Booker T. Washington Cemetery.

So far volunteers have uncovered nearly a dozen hidden gravestones and are unsure how many more are still out there. 

After 17 years on the job, with minimal tools and no staff to assist him, the cemetery's caretaker Darryl Brown said the volunteers are a welcome sight. He tends to the north end of the cemetery, but by the time he finishes taking care of it, it is time to start over again. 

The large size of the cemetery makes it challenging to even begin working on the south end.

"You couldn't see some of these stones. It was knee level, or thigh level," Brown recalled. "You couldn't see some of them. It was heartbreaking to see that happen."

But now, Brown and volunteers are working long hours to repair the cemetery, while also discovering its history.

"48 stars," Wilhite said as he found a flag next to a forgotten veteran's grave. "That has been here a long time. That is a long time. That is almost a relic."

Ultimately, Wilhite said they want to restore the legacies buried in the historically black cemetery. 

"They fought segregation and they fought a lot of things," Wilhite said. "To me that is well worth the efforts we are all putting out."

Volunteers plan to be at the cemetery most weekends and some weekdays, until Veterans Day. 

To volunteer contact Dennis Wilhite at 918-680-1942 or Darryl Brown 918-232-8044. 

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