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Development Threatens Vestiges of Historic Black Cemetery in West Kentucky

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Taylor Inman
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  At the turn of the 20th Century, racist factions of the Night Riders conducted Ku Klux Klan-like raids on African American communities in west Kentucky. The alleged gravesite of one community in Lyon County is now under threat of being demolished by a development company.

  No one doubted the existence of Groom’s Chapel Cemetery until developers arrived… that’s according to historian Jordan Carroll. He’s been studying the 150-year-old cemetery and the area that surrounds it for about 13 years. And he’s been appointed to make a case for preservation in a suit between development company Herran Properties and the Lyon County Government.

“In this particular case it is an African American cemetery, that has burials from an African American community that was essentially disrupted by racism." Carroll said. "But if we do let this cemetery pass, if we wipe it from history...so much is lost. We’ve not come far from our past in that instance.”

More than 100 years ago, members of the Night Riders started making their presence known in Lyon County. Carroll said they harassed local white farmers that worked with the black community and attacked African Americans walking to and from town. One of those people attacked was Arthur Blue, the grisly details of his savage beating are described by Lyon County officials in a letter to the governor asking for help dealing with the Night Riders.

 

On a raid in March 1908, the Night Riders ran through the African American community of Groom’s Chapel and the neighboring white community of Hickory Chapel.

 

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Credit Taylor Inman, WKMS
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Jordan Carroll's map of what Groom's Chapel once looked like. African American property owners are underlined in red; and in the bottom left corner you can see where the schoolhouse used to be.

  “This time they’re going to burn the Hickory Chapel School House- which was the white schoolhouse, and they’re going to burn the black schoolhouse which is also a church." Carroll said. "They rush through the community, again, threatening them, telling the black people they need to leave.”

Most people fled to other towns or even different states. Carroll said all that remains of Groom’s Chapel is a cemetery with 30 to 40 unmarked graves. He took me to where the cemetery is said to be located.

“On this ridge, if we could go up it- we can’t because there are trespassing signs," Carroll said. "But on top of that ridge as it panes towards the hillside..that goes down into that valley...is the cemetery, so we are literally looking into the cemetery from the roadside.”

We couldn’t cross through the woods and into the valley because it’s on private property. But we can see ivy creeping towards the road. Carroll said it’s from periwinkle that had been planted to cover the graves.

“Do you see where the periwinkle stops and the weeds begin?" He asked me. "That corresponds roughly to where the cemetery begins.” He said.

Herran Properties bought the land last Spring. And the case file said that a cemetery was not mentioned in the deed. But the Lyon County government stopped Herran from building due to the cemetery. Herran then sued the county claiming a violation of property owner’s rights.

 

A statement from Wesley Herran’s lawyer said he took the allegation of a cemetery seriously, but said officials “couldn’t point to any evidence as to any definitive location.” The statement also said Herran “personally performed historical research and site examination and found no evidence to support these allegations.” The statement goes on to say that “myth, folklore, and legend should not be a substitute for scientific and archeological fact,” and that if there were a cemetery, Herran would take appropriate measures to honor the remains in accordance to Kentucky state law.

 
Groom’s Chapel Cemetery is not a myth to Paducah resident Betty Dobson, who said she has family buried there - and that her grandmother would go there from time to time to pay respects to her ancestors. She said she believes the dispute is a matter of race.

“We can look at this through rose colored glasses, but I believe this is all racially motivated." Dobson said. "If it were a white cemetery, I don’t think we would be talking.”

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Credit Taylor Inman
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Betty Dobson outside the Hotel Metropolitan, a segregation-era African American hotel in Paducah that now serves as a museum.

 Herran’s lawyer did not address whether race was a factor when asked to respond. Dobson is the curator of a segregation-era African American hotel in Paducah that now serves as a history museum. She said the law has, throughout time, been institutionally designed to work against black people.

“If you have a law that says cemeteries are protected. But here’s a black cemetery that’s not being protected, the law has failed you." She said. "And that’s been our story all the long...the law is not for us.”

 

But Dobson is hopeful that the law will work this time. She and other descendants are fundraising to hire an attorney. District Judge C.A. Woodall’s recent order found that Lyon County has standing to intervene in the matter. A status hearing is set for November 6th. But for now, the site of the alleged Groom's Chapel Cemetery is still covered in periwinkle.

 

Taylor is a recent Murray State University graduate where she studied journalism and history. When she's not reporting for WKMS, she enjoys creative writing and traveling. She loves writing stories that involve diversity, local culture and history, nature and recreation, art and music, and national or local politics. If you have a news tip or idea, shoot her an email at tinman1@murraystate.edu!
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