Updated: Oct 26, 2021
by Greg Ciesielski, Post 539 Historian
On an overcast and cool morning, four Legionnaires and one spouse gathered to undertake a mission that has been in the planning stages for months. In New Bern, North Carolina’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, lie many black citizens of New Bern. Their cemetery shows the conditions in which they have been interned, many graves are in disrepair, headstones have suffered from vandalism or are blackened with moss, lichen and mold, are sunken or becoming lost with overgrown vegetation, and there is a lack of any semblance of clean-up as the trash scattered about will attest.
So, what about the Legionnaires? What role do they play in this historic black cemetery? Going back in time to 2019, the Whitehurst-Ware Post 539 undertook the mission to clean up and update the World War I monument in front of the New Bern courthouse as a project to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the American Legion. In the course of completing this project, it was discovered that many veterans, predominantly black veterans, were not on the monument. Due to the thinking back in the day and the fact that the monument was paid for by subscription (black citizens had little or no money), it became one of the checklist “to-do” items to right a great wrong done to our black and marginalized veterans through honoring their service and placing their names on the monument.
After this event was completed, it created an awareness with some of the members of the Post to the plight of our black veterans and thus the cleaning of their headstones became an issue, and subsequently, a mission. During the research process, hurdles had to be overcome, and they were. City officials were consulted and they give their permission for this mission, supplies were ordered, and a date was set. That date was 23 October 2021.
So, what was discovered? Officials stated there were six (6) Union Veterans of the Civil War buried in the cemetery. Mark Sandvigen found seven. (Official records will be updated.) There are also five (5) veterans from World War I, nineteen (19) veterans of World War II, five (5) veterans of the Korean War, ten (10) veterans of the Vietnam War and two (2) veterans of the Persian Gulf War. That totals forty-eight (48) veterans of all services interned in this one cemetery that have not received the care they deserve. No wreaths at Christmas. No flags on their graves.
The three hours spent today were used to mark each grave with a surveyor flag, take photographs, and clean as many headstones as possible before supplies and energy were used up. Rough guess says that about half of the headstones were cleaned. More days in the future will be needed to finish cleaning the headstones, picking up trash, doing some light landscaping and placing the flags to honor these veterans.
Were any veterans missed? Of course there were. If the family didn’t include their deceased military service on their headstone, we wouldn’t know about it. Sunken and broken headstones also hide military service of the deceased. Overgrown trees, bushes and grass also hide information that might show more veterans. What needs to be done? Ultimately a complete overhaul of the cemetery would be the best course of action. That includes everyone buried there, from the babies to the oldest man or woman. However, that is cost prohibitive and way beyond our resources, so we do what we can and that is to: research the cemetery, mark and clean each veteran headstone and then once a year go back and touch them up if necessary.
Sincere thanks go to the chairman of this event, Mark Sandvigen, his wife Cheryl, Rachel Yuan, Dick Seale, Archie Asadourian and Greg Ciesielski for the initial clean-up of these veterans’ headstones. Thanks also to Post Commander Liz Hartman and the entire Post membership for endorsing this event.