Once new markers are installed, it will serve the people who are buried there, as well as those who remain to see it so. But Sadie Brown has the potential to benefit more than the families with a loved one buried there: It’s a place that brings groups of people together not only for history, but also for community and creating new bonds.
After all, as the application for the grant funding put it: “The recent activities surrounding the Sadie Brown Cemetery serve as a great example of the white population and African American population of Howell County working together towards a goal that is race-centric.”
“Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are largely invisible or dismissed in Howell County because it’s easy to deny that diversity exists in this predominantly white county. There are also no multicultural venues in the county. The Sadie Brown Cemetery therefore represents a starting point for cultural visibility.”
In some ways, it’s already working to that end.
There have been cleanup days to engage the community, including one that brought more than 30 people from different organizations together, and a research day with MSU’s Center for Archaeological Research.
In 2021, the center composed a comprehensive list of work at the site. The list included creating an outline of the cemetery’s history, the cultural research and archaeological and geophysical work necessary to find graves sites, and suggestions for joining the Black Cemetery Network.
It also recommended that the site be nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Impact in the greater conversation
Even though people buried at Sadie Brown are local, the cemetery’s presence is also part of a story that is beyond Howell County.
It’s a place of note for the greater African American history in the Ozarks. In the early 1900s, numerous towns across the region saw expulsions of Black residents. That horrific reality, and smaller numbers of Black residents compared with white, results in a limited number of Black landmarks in the overall list of cultural sites across the state.
Their presence teaches, and also reminds.
I recently visited with Dr. Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri, who spoke to the importance of preserving such places. He felt so strongly about their documentation that he personally began researching them in the 1970s.
That fact makes documentation crucial to telling the true story of the region.
“They’re important because they remind us of this significant Black presence in those communities at one time, even though there is no longer that significant Black presence anymore,” Kremer told me. “They simply remind us that African Americans lived all over the state of Missouri, not just in the urban areas or the Bootheel or the Boonslick. There was a black presence in virtually every county in Missouri.
“The Sadie Brown Cemetery is not unique, although I think it’s extremely important. It’s not unique because there were these Black communities throughout the Ozarks, which had Black cemeteries that Blacks were forced to be buried in, because they couldn’t be buried in white cemeteries. The existence of the cemetery’s documents, among other things, that there were these pockets of Black population in a part of the state that people today tend to think of as having an all-white history.
“The structures that tie people to locations in the Ozarks, if you’re African American, are few and they’re in danger,” Kremer said.
That’s one aspect the CFO grant funding helps support. The $22,000 grant will first work to restore and remember those buried there by providing grave markers, landscaping and benches at the site.
“It’s an honor to support the Heart of the Ozarks United Way’s work at the Sadie Brown Cemetery,” Bridget Dierks, vice president of programs at the CFO, told me. “In locating those who were buried at the cemetery and ensuring they are remembered for future generations, we are able to honor our Ozarks history. Being able to bring back this space for future use helps ensure families may continue to bury their loved ones together.”
The combination of those efforts, which will largely begin in early 2023, represents a moment of significance for those buried as well as residents in the present. It also allows the cemetery to be used going forward without disturbing unmarked graves.
“I guess a sense of justice and heart kicked in to want to do something,” Oaks said. “Having the ability, the means, to do something, then we should do that. It’s a way, in my mind, as a son looking at aging parents, to give them the confidence that they need to know that their resting place is going to be cared for, and let them see what the Sadie Brown Cemetery could be with a little bit of money, time and diligence.”
By Kaitlyn McConnell, writer in residence for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks