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Chesapeake group works to find, document forgotten African-American cemeteries

More and more people want to find African-American ancestors who are seemingly forgotten. Now a Chesapeake group wants to help out.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Kenneth Bly is a descendant of the Cuffee family and once a year, he gets relatives together to clean the family cemetery.

Each plot holds the significant history of his African-American family legacy. Some are military veterans while others are family providers like Bly’s mother.

“I’m just paying her back. She took care of me when she could,” Bly said. “This is who we are and we have to take care!”

He takes preservation very seriously after seeing that happened to his father’s grave that is overgrown with weeds.

“It really makes me mad that you’d have a cemetery and just let it fall to waste like that. I mean these are our people. These are my people. I’m getting emotional now,” said Bly.

While Bly has found his loved ones, many families are still searching.

June Demby still searches for her Great Grandmother’s plot at Saint Julien’ Creek Cemetery in Chesapeake. It’s nestled behind a building with a dirt path.

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She searched for the first time as 13News Now tagged along.

“It was really creepy,” Demby said. “Everything was hanging down, all this overhang, so I was kind of afraid to get out and look.”

Demby joins a growing list of people wanting to find African-American ancestors who are seemingly forgotten. That’s where Kay Ziegler and Jean Spencer come in to help.

They are with the Norfolk County Historical Society in Chesapeake and they work to find those hidden cemeteries. They compile them into an ongoing list.

“We do it because we don’t want people to be lost,” said Spencer. “A lot of black cemeteries are at churches, that was their land, or they’re small family cemeteries.”

Researchers said some cemeteries are of enslaved families, and members are buried on or near plantations.

After emancipation, that land possibly became private property, and now the burial and even cemetery locations are hard to find.

Urbanization makes it even more difficult, which makes it tough to estimate how many cemeteries remain lost.

“I don’t have any idea. That’s why we keep searching. We ask people all the time if you know where a cemetery is, please tell us!” said Spencer.

As we tagged along, Demby eventually found a family member’s gravesite.

“This is my Grandmother’s brother,” said Demby. “Yeah, [my great grandmother] has to be here somewhere.”

And for those plots already found like Bly’s ancestors, he said he’ll continue to preserve it as long as he lives.

You can find more information about the Norfolk County Historical Society, here.