You wouldn’t know the cemetery near Thorntown, Ind., was the resting place of nearly 50 African Americans. For a long time, it was a patch of grass, recognized only by a few decrepit stone tombstones and a black-and-white sign.
Four years ago, Reece Thompson of Troop 350 in nearby Advance, Ind., decided to do something after reading an article about the cemetery in a local newspaper. Since his older brother had restored a cemetery for his Eagle Scout project, Reece chose to do the same.
“Only a part of it was making it look pretty,” Reece says. “The other part was spreading awareness.”
The cemetery now has a new sign, a historical marker about the community, an iron fence and restored tombstones. But more importantly, it now has newfound meaning and history for the community.
“Although we have long had a list of 25 names of people buried there and have logged three more from research, it was not until Reece got involved … that it has been discovered that there may be as many as 49 graves,” says Karen Niemeyer, librarian at the Thorntown Public Library. “That, I think, is significant.”
A significant project
People began to settle around Thorntown in 1827. African-American families had established a community outside of town several years later. By 1870, the community outside of Thorntown — the Sugar Creek Community — had grown to more than 170 residents; however, in subsequent decades, the community began to dissipate and eventually dissolved.
In doing research for this project, Reece discovered the community’s cemetery likely was formed in 1869, not 1836 like the original sign stated.
“As the project went on, I did really like learning the history,” Reece says. “I learned how much this meant to people.”
To preserve this history, Reece partnered with numerous experts, including students at Ball State University who used ground-penetrating radar to identify where people were buried. Reece restored the headstones and found others that were buried.
It was a three-year endeavor that culminated in a dedication and unveiling of a state historical marker.
“This marker serves as a tangible reminder of this community,” says Casey Elizabeth Pfeiffer, historical marker program director at the Indiana State Library. “We’re able to restore these stories to the communities where they belong.”