helping hand cemetery clubhelping hand cemetery club

April 19, 2024
History of Helping Hand Cemetery Club

THE PAST

In 1897 Trustees Jenkins, Darden, Epps, Hardy, and Blount appealed to Mr. J.B. Prince to sell them a parcel of his land “situated on the left side of the public road leading from Courtland.” Joseph B. Prince was a wealthy landowner, a Judge and the Clerk of the Court of Courtland, Southampton County. According to the deed, this land was for the “sole purpose of burying colored people” and no one could be buried there without the permission of these trustees. (Southampton County Deed Record dated May 27, 1897).

For fifteen years this cemetery, known at that time as the Courtland Colored Cemetery, was the eternal resting place for Courtland’s early black citizens many of whom were born in slavery. During these years, the trustees organized a club called the Helping Hand Club with the goal of not only managing the cemetery, but also creating an “insurance” bank for the community. The Helping Hand Club collected at first 10 cents a month, which quickly increased to 20 cents a month as more and more people supported the bank. The Club, according to the ledgers that still exist, paid members $1.50 a week if a member became sick or lost a job; paid for the upkeep of the cemetery; and allowed members to make installment payments towards their funeral costs.

In 1913 an ex-slave, who had escaped his bondage to become a Union soldier in the Civil War, returned to Courtland and bought property next to the cemetery. He sold the Helping Hand Trustees, Scott, Darden, Brown, Ricks, Taylor, and Harrison a parcel of his land for $5.00 to extend the cemetery space. This Civil War veteran, Solomon Stevens, was also a member of the Helping Hand Club and is now buried in the cemetery. (See Stevens to Scott et als, Trustees - Deed recorded 30th day of December, 1913.) Around this time, the cemetery was renamed The Helping Hand Cemetery (HHC) and continued from that time to today to be owned and managed by the Helping Hand Club. Additional land was purchased throughout the years as well as an HHC Club-House in which meetings were held and records were kept until the building was destroyed by a fire.

THE PRESENT

As trustees aged it became increasingly difficult to maintain the cemetery and as with many black cemeteries, HHC began to show signs of neglect until a new Board of Helping Hand Cemetery Club Trustees, many of whom are descendants of the original trustees, revitalized the cemetery through personal and private donations. Managing HHC, now with over 450 interred, this new Board of Trustees under the leadership of Alton Darden, President, initiated long term cleanup, landscaping, and documentation projects.

Trustee Wallace Darden, began the tradition of a Memorial Day parade which concludes in the cemetery where family members, visitors, and children participate in honoring their ancestors while learning of the cemetery’s history from Trustee and Historian, Dolores Peterson. Trustee Darden also manages the fundraising and membership drives for the club. Retired General Dr. Melvin Johnson, Vice President, leads the memorial ceremony honoring the more than 45 veterans buried in HHC. Board member Deacon Bob Barnes represents the community churches while ensuring the cemetery grounds are safe and beautiful for visitors. Rosilyn Bryant, Vernon Darden, Sheldon Darden, Gail Lover, and Dwight Cannon play important roles in the organization of this special day.

Our current project is our exciting collaboration with The College of William and Mary Archeology Department thanks to the persistence and determination of our Vice-President Dr. Melvin Johnson. The archaeology crew is x-raying the cemetery with a ground penetrating radar machine to ensure that the spaces are clear for burials. It is imperative that we have this information now because there is documentation that over a hundred years ago people often buried their own family members leaving little, if any, identifying markers. To meet the requests of family members who now want to be “buried next to grandma,” the radar machine will not only verify that space is available, but also locate the hundred year old bones that might be identified by artifacts left by family members.

THE FUTURE

HHCC has been fortunate to secure two grants, one from the Department of Historic Resources to help maintain the physical appearance of the cemetery, and one from the “400 Years of African American History Commission” to continue our project known as “Sharing Their Stories.”

“Sharing Their Stories” is the goal of the Helping Hand Cemetery Club. We are dedicated to honoring our ancestors buried in HHC and connecting their lives to the vibrant, independent African-American community of the early 1900s in Courtland, Virginia. The people and children of Courtland long to learn of their true legacy and of their brave African-American ancestors who despite all the obstacles of slavery and Jim Crow, owned property, built houses, owned businesses, raised families, and became prominent citizens of their day.

In addition to the “Sharing Their Stories” project, the HHCC Board is also working towards sharing historical records with the public. There are plans to erect a kiosk on the grounds that will not only provide visitors with a directory and a map of the cemetery, but also to provide access to the Club’s ledgers started in 1920. Helping Hand Cemetery will be 125 years old in 2022. We are planning a comprehensive celebration which will include a number of activities to not only educate and collaborate with all of Courtland’s citizens, but also to welcome home the descendants of one of Southampton County’s early African-American communities.

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