A labor of love Respect, memories draw retiree to restore cemetery’s identity

Published 6:00 am Monday, September 6, 2010

On about two acres of land in east Warren County off gravel Freetown Road sits a small, one-room building that before the turn of the century was a bustling church and cemetery.

Today they are property without an address, a church and a cemetery without an identity.

The thin window panes are broken, the carpet is molded and torn, shattered glass dots the floor and the two remaining pews are cracked. Around the cemetery, grass and weeds grow tall enough to conceal worn grave markers. They would not be noticed at all if it were not for Wayne Beard, an electronics technician retired from Waterways Experiment Station who adopted the property in 2008.

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“I just like to keep it up,” said Beard, 61. “It doesn’t cost me much and people get enjoyment out of it. That’s all that matters. I’d like it to be respected.”

Beard cuts the grass, trims weeds and makes sure the property has good aesthetics in memory and respect for those who were important to him and those he has never met. He does nothing to the building because, he said, “It just needs to be torn down and built up.”

His efforts on the property began when he was a teen in the 1960s. His late aunt Love Blaylock, who lived nearby, had asked him frequently to cut grass there because some of her plantation workers attended the church.

“Just in her memory and respect for the people buried here, he would come out here and cut the grass,” said his wife, Susan Beard. “Then little by little, he has fixed the graves.”

The building, call Brookhaven Church and School, was built around the 1940s on property given in 1921 to the small black community by local plantation owner William F. Brabston for a church and school, Warren County deed records show.

The church doors were open until 1999, and the school had closed many years before. About half of the 40 graves are missing markers. But those that are there date from the early 1890s to as late as the 1970s.

Charles Winston remembers Brookhaven Church, where he was a deacon until its closing.

“Every Sunday you went to church, but a different church each Sunday,” said Winston, 51, who was deacon of Brookhaven for 20 years. “There were four black churches in the area and people came to Brookhaven on the fourth Sunday.”

The others were Oakland Baptist Church, Jones Chapel and Bethlehem Baptist Church. As the years passed, church members combined three of the four.

“We had more strength if we became one church,” Winston said. “It was hard to keep up four churches because there weren’t that many people left in that community. We pooled all of our resources to have one beautiful church.”

Together they became Oak Chapel M.B. Church on Freetown Road, where Winston continues to serve as deacon. Bethlehem remains open.

But since Winston and his congregation moved 3 miles away, maintenance around Brookhaven has been minimal. So Beard, who remembered how beautiful the property looked when he was teen, decided he had to do something.

“It looked so bad that I would come out here and cut the grass,” he said. “I didn’t fool with the cemetery too much because the graves were all falling in. They’re not now, I filled them up.”

After, he welded iron crosses for markers.

“I didn’t want to lose where the person was buried,” he said. He and his wife, Susan, places flowers on the graves of people they have never met.

“When we replace the flowers on my mother’s grave and our son’s grave, we take those flowers and put them on the graves here,” Susan Beard said.

On the grounds, she said, she believes her husband finds therapy needed after the sudden death of their adult son last year.

Beard maintains the grounds a few times a month and wonders about the past each time he drives past from his home a mile east.

Beard and Winston agree that the property should be restored, but how remains the question.

“We want to keep it up, and maybe one day restore it,” Winston said, “but right now, we don’t have any funds to do it. We want it to be a historic place because so many people were baptized there.”

“I want to get a sign made that says Brookhaven Church and Cemetery,” Beard said, “but I haven’t done that yet.”