- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - Pete Miller of Martinsburg had an interest in historic cemeteries long before such interests became popular.

Miller likes to visit cemeteries because of their peacefulness, he said in a recent interview.

“Life and death go hand-in-hand,” he said. “I respect all cemeteries. I believe our heavenly father gave us the gift of death so we can escape this physical life.”

While exploring Greenhill Cemetery on East Burke Street in Martinsburg in the 1970s, Miller discovered a cemetery for free blacks that borders the northeast corner of Greenhill. He estimates it might date from the late 1700s. It is reportedly one of the earliest known black cemeteries in the South.

About 1.5 acres in size, the cemetery is wedged between East Burke Street and a marshy wetland. The grounds cling to the side of an at-times quite steep hill falling away from the street toward what was once a low-lying street that was known as Bull Lane, the path of which is still visible.

Driving by on Burke Street, no one would know it existed.

It was overgrown with trees and underbrush and filled with garbage, Miller said.

“When I first came out here, there was not a hill - it was a trash dump filled with TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners, and there was a nest of copperheads that I had to clean out,” he said.

Miller took it upon himself to adopt the cemetery and try to take care of it as best he could. The trees, vines and underbrush have grown back, but the garbage dump is gone.

“I’ve spent about 700 hours cleaning it up and spent a lot of my own money doing it,” Miller said. “I had to hire a guy with a truck to remove the garbage dump.”

However, the now abandoned, ignored cemetery is strewn with broken bottles, beer cans and other trash tossed out the window of cars passing by on Burke Street.

“When I first started coming here, there were 18 markers,” he said. “Now there are two. I guess they were stolen.”

One is a very small, very worn marker with only the letters “B” and “B” visible. Miller thinks it belongs to a female named Browning.

The other marker is about three feet tall and, while worn, its elaborate carvings are recognizable. It is the gravestone of Lewis Washington, a house servant of Lewis William Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, Miller explained.

“This was an expensive headstone, even for a white man,” he said.

Washington lived at Beall-Air near Halltown and was taken hostage by John Brown during his raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Brown took Washington, three slaves, a sword given to George Washington by Frederick the Great of Prussia, which Brown wore during the raid, and a set of pistols given to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette.

Available records do not indicate if Lewis Washington, the house servant, was one of the three slaves taken by Brown.

There is at least one other headstone base at the top of the hill near the shoulder of Burke Street, but the marker is gone. There might be some “fieldstone” markers lying about.

The concave outlines of graves are visible. Miller thinks there are probably 200 gravesites in the cemetery.

Miller has extensively researched the history of the cemetery, finding the names of several people who were buried there in the records of Trinity Episcopal Church. He said Trinity Episcopal on West King Street in Martinsburg “married and buried blacks” until a black Baptist church was established.

Anne Dudley, a missionary from New England, moved to Martinsburg after the Civil War to teach freed slaves. She founded a Baptist church and school in 1867 on North Raleigh Street that was named Dudley Baptist Church in her honor. The name has since been changed to Destiny Baptist Church. It is the oldest African American congregation in West Virginia, according to the church’s records.

In her writings, Dudley noted, “Martinsburg Colored Cemetery was some-what overgrown.”

Miller said that the last burials in the free black cemetery probably took place in the 1870s.

He has held candlelight services at the cemetery on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday sunrise services. Usually, no one attends, he said.

Miller is suffering from some serious health problems and can no longer take care of the cemetery. He is looking for help.

“I can’t carry on,” he said. “I’ve tried to get others to help, but no one would take over the upkeep. I would like to see a church or an organization to take over the upkeep. Maybe a committee could be formed to take care of it.”


Information from: The Journal, https://journal-news.net/

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