Graveyard with veterans rededicated on Memorial Day

A community effort to restore honor to an old and falling apart cemetery culminated today in Melbourne.

Veterans and families of the fallen were observing Memorial Day in a very special place.  The mayor of Melbourne made a proclamation that the cemetery is official again. Thirty-four known veterans are laid to rest at Shady Oaks, but the research continues to identify others whose markers have all but crumbled.

“I feel that the spirit of everyone here, from the oldest to the youngest, is still here with us every day,” said Carolyn King-Lewis.

Lewis, her brother, and her husband were placing wreaths on headstones, brushing off leaves and setting down old photos. Their family has more than a dozen loved ones buried here. Some Vietnam vets, some from World War II.

“We don’t only clean our plot, we have cleaned a lot of plots, several plots,” King-Lewis said.

Shady Oaks was founded in the early 1900s for African Americans, but the rededication of the graveyard has been a project involving blacks and whites.

“It has been my honor, my wife’s honor, my family’s honor, to be involved in this, it’s been a labor of love,” said Bruce Rothschild, one of the leaders of the grassroots movement for the restoration efforts.

The names of 34 veterans were read aloud in Monday’s ceremony, but parts of the cemetery, set back in the woods, have graves that are so overgrown and broken, the group is working to document all.

“There were so few people who actually knew about the cemetery, let alone it being African-American, starting in 1912 and the history of the people here -- some of them are the founders of Eau Gallie,” Rothschild said.

King-Lewis is one of the fortunate ones, she can mourn here with certainty, but many other families are trying to play detective.

“And we would clean as much as we could, but we couldn’t get the whole cemetery, and we realized that, but we asked for help, and prayed for help and help came,” King-Lewis said.

The work continues.  The group has been contacted by other cemeteries, where people are trying to figure out who is who, so they’ll keep going.