In Meridian, Okla., the meeting place of an Anti-Jim Crow Convention in 1907, there are still seeds of hate scattered in the soil. But in this small town, the seeds are buried amongst their dead.
In Evansville Cemetery, located in southeastern Logan County and established in 1889, the deceased share much in common: they were all veterans and brothers-in-arms in wars spanning from the Civil War to post 9/11 soldiers. Nevertheless, even in modern times they still lay at rest with a wire fence running between them, their plots parceled out by color: black veterans on one side, white on the other.
The cemetery was a surviving artifact of prejudice.
Scotty Deatherage, the director of Honoring America’s Warriors, received a request to augment military funeral honors for a US Air Force veteran interred over the Memorial Day weekend. That brought him to the cemetery’s gates, which consist of the phrase “18–Evansville–89” twisted in wire between two skinny metal poles.
“On arrival, we noticed the grass was very tall on one side and there were veterans graves without flags,” Deatherage told the Edmond Sun, “that’s when we realized it was segregated.”
A wire fence divided the cemetery into two. It’s not a particularly tall or foreboding one; when Deatherage stands next it, it doesn’t even reach his shoulder. However, the disrepair of the cemetery and the dishonor of the fence are reminders of a gaping divide in America’s history. They’re reminders of inequality, of soldiers who can die shoulder to shoulder but not be buried together.
Calling on Meridian locals and anybody nearby through a Facebook post, Deatherage issued a plea for people to volunteer their time on July 22 from 8 AM to 2 PM to clean up the cemetery and rip down the fence.
He was overwhelmed by the response.
Around 100 people showed up to honor the fallen soldiers.
Baking under the Oklahoma sun, volunteers from the Honoring America’s Warriors group and the Logan County Young Marines filtered in during the morning. Locals came by as well, some dressed in army-issue camouflage pants and dark green caps.
For Gary LeGrande, a newly appointed caretaker at the cemetery, he was both excited and thankful for the community service.
“It was a blessing for us to have a group willing to help bring this place the honor and respect it deserves,” he told the Edmond Sun. “My wife and stepson are buried here.”
Working under sprawling trees whose branches curved to the ground, volunteers wrangled the tall grass with lawn mowers and rakes; they scrubbed at weathered gravestones on their knees and planted flags with a salute of respect.
The most symbolic act was when they tore down the fence. Some wanted to take home bits of wire from the fence when the project is over, as a souvenir of history, a reminder of sacrifice and patriotism.
Larry Don Chandler Sr., a Vietnam veteran, volunteered at the cemetery clean-up. He is no stranger to the bloody tide of war; his brother never made it home, and other fallen family members are buried on the other side of the fence–the part for African-Americans.
“The removal of the fence, I’m really excited about that,” Chandler told KOCO5 News.
To him, the fence is a worn reminder of the shackled past of America. But he still remembers a wartime bond that unifies troops more than race could ever pull them apart.
“It was no color,” he said about his time in Vietnam. “We had one common goal, and that was to come back home.”