Sacred Ground

by David Roten

Frederich L. Johnson for more than a decade has made it his mission to reclaim abandoned cemeteries in Newton County, preserving history with annual cleanups in conjunction with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

You might be tempted to think that 80-year-old Frederich L. Johnson has one or more feet in the grave. On one hand, you would be dead wrong. Johnson still drives a pick-up truck, operates a part-time masonry business and takes frequent trips to the beach and mountains with Artie, his wife of 58 years. On the other, you would be correct—quite literally. Johnson’s efforts to reclaim abandoned cemeteries in Newton County have at times landed him with both feet squarely in the middle of a sunken grave. 

Showing respect for the dead by taking care of their final resting place is a family value he learned early in life. 

“When I was small, we would get on a wagon, ride up to the cemetery and there would be a day of cleaning,” Johnson said. “Everything would be immaculate, and next year, we would come and do the same thing.” 

Frederich L. Johnson

However, times change and so has the condition of many cemeteries in Newton County. Former county commissioner Monty Laster is an expert on the subject. A personal search for his ancestors that began 20 years ago led to a project of painstakingly mapping out every cemetery he could find. “We’ve recorded about 280 cemeteries to date,” Laster said. Over half of them are considered “abandoned,” meaning they show signs of neglect, vandalism or abuse of some kind. The location of a burial ground has much to do with whether or not it is well-maintained, according to Laster. “If the cemetery is not in a city or a church or a certain community that will look after those cemeteries,” he said, “they’ll start to be neglected.”

Johnson had not given much thought to cemeteries since his childhood days. Then, in January 2008, a friend asked him to haul off some trash from an MLK Service Day project at Graves Chapel Cemetery in Covington. He was struck by what he called the “deplorable” condition of that cemetery, as well as others he would soon visit. 

“There are so many that are just abandoned,” Johnson said. “They just take somebody there and bury them and just forget about them.” 

“When I was small, we would get on a wagon, ride up to the cemetery and there would be a day of cleaning. Everything would be immaculate, and next year, we would come and do the same thing.”

Frederich L. Johnson

Compelled to act, Johnson began to organize groups to do cemetery cleanups, focusing on those that needed attention the most. He combined forces with Laster for a time, enlisting the help of the county, as well as local high schools, colleges and anyone else who was willing to participate in a community service project. Now, the Newton County Family Connection works with Johnson to provide those volunteers and the necessary tools through its “Hands On Newton” program. NCFC Executive Director Laura Bertram credits Johnson with keeping the cleanup effort going when others no longer could. 

“He has single-handedly kept this up,” she said. “Mr. Fred is out there whether it’s cold or rain or whatever. He just does not stop going.” 

Every January, Johnson and his band of volunteers descend on a cemetery judged to be in dire need of attention. Wielding weed eaters, chainsaws, rakes and hoes, they remove brush and trash, taking care not to damage graves and markers. In some cases, the cemetery is so overgrown it is barely visible. Such was the condition of the Gaither’s at Myrtle Creek Farm Slave Cemetery when Johnson and his team made the first of two cleanup efforts there several years ago. “We’ve got trees in there bigger than these chairs—in the middle of graves,” Johnson said. Volunteers utilized shovels, wheelbarrows and sand to fill other graves that had sunken as much as three feet. Only one primitive gravestone had markings that had survived the years, still bearing witness to the one laid to rest beneath it. 

If the task of uncovering and cleaning up so many overgrown and dilapidated cemeteries seems daunting, Johnson offers no such evidence. This year, as in years past, he will organize efforts to clean at least one cemetery in conjunction with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. If there are enough volunteers, he will tackle two. 

Each year, Dr. King’s birthday serves as the occasion and impetus for community involvement across America. A federal holiday, it is observed as a day of service by many who have been inspired by King’s legacy: “a day on, not a day off,” as the saying goes. It will be no different for Johnson and the volunteers who will join him on Jan. 20. 

Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes plans to be one of those volunteers and cites the benefits of a cleaner and more unified community as the public and public servants work together for a common cause. In the past, members of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, the Covington City Council and the mayor have all participated in cleanup efforts.

“Through the years, elected officials have been a part of it,” Banes said. “We’re excited it’s coming up again soon.” 

Johnson remains appreciative of all the help he can get and would not mind at all if someone stepped up to take his place. “I’m 80 years old,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got more [years] behind me than I do in front of me.” Still, the mission to maintain cemeteries that others cannot—or will not—preserve drives him still. This time of year, he spends a fair amount of time walking alone through rundown and overgrown cemeteries, looking for the next one in need. The precarious nature of that activity is not lost on his good-natured wife. “She often tells me, ‘You shouldn’t be going in these cemeteries by yourself. You be done fell in a hole,’” Johnson said, a chuckle trailing his words, “and of course, there are a lot of graves that you can fall in.” 

Those interested in volunteering to help clean up a cemetery on Jan. 20 or possibly another day are encouraged to contact Frederich L. Johnson at 404-308-0780 or the office Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes at 678-625-1225.

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