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Hillcrest Cemetery Protects and Preserves Important History in Anderson Township

February 24, 2023

Hillcrest Cemetery is nestled in a clearing surrounded by forest on Sutton Road, not far from the Ohio River. It’s an historic African American cemetery that serves as the final resting place for thousands of people, dating back nearly 100 years. 

But, despite its long and significant existence, some people might not be aware of the importance of this piece of history.

“There’s folks born into slavery and they’re buried in the cemetery,” Todd Mayer said. “I don’t think a lot of people in the township realize that.”

Volunteers work to clean up and repair Hillcrest Cemetery.Todd Mayer is the Board President of the Coalition to Save Hillcrest Cemetery. This nonprofit organization has worked for decades to try and clean up the cemetery to properly honor all of its residents after the property fell into disrepair during years of neglect.

“The cemetery was basically starting to be abandoned in the 1970s,” Mayer said. “It fell into disrepair. You had vandalism going on.”

During Black History Month, Mayer is acutely aware of the history housed here.

“The cemetery was started in the late 1920s and it was in response to a dark time period in our history where Black people could not be buried together with [Caucasian] people,” Mayer said.

Mayer estimates that about 60% of graves in Hillcrest Cemetery are those of Black members of the United States Armed Forces. These veterans served as far back as the Civil War and as recently as the Vietnam War, and Mayer believes they all deserve to be properly honored and remembered.

Volunteers work to clean up and repair Hillcrest Cemetery.“These guys had to fight to serve and then they had to fight our nation’s enemy,” Mayer said. “They deserve to have their final burial place kept up just like anybody that’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.”

There are three veterans from the 369th Infantry Regiment who served during World War I buried at Hillcrest. This all-Black regiment was nicknamed the Harlem “Hellfighters” after serving honorably with French troops during the war, even earning the French Croix de Guerre for all members.

Hillcrest Cemetery is also the final resting place for multiple members of the 10th Cavalry Regiment. This unit of the United States Army formed as a segregated African-American unit and was one of the original “Buffalo Soldier” regiments in the post-Civil War Regular Army. The unit served in combat during the Indian Wars in the western United States, the Spanish–American War in Cuba and in the Philippine–American War.

An Eagle Scout stands in front of his project to improve Hillcrest Cemetery.“Students should know and remember the sacrifices that were made so they could enjoy living in a place like Anderson Township because Anderson is a great place to live,” Mayer said.

The Coalition to Save Hillcrest Cemetery regularly works to care for and clean the property and straighten gravestones. These efforts have helped multiple people find and visit the graves of loved ones for the first time ever.

Mayer is especially grateful for recent support from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology for making sure this important work continued through the coronavirus pandemic. They are also lucky to have had multiple Eagle Scout projects benefit the cemetery and many volunteers who support their holiday wreath laying efforts.

Anyone interested in learning more about upcoming volunteer opportunities, events or how to donate can visit the group’s Facebook page here. Special thanks to Board Member Sara Jonas, who has volunteered at the cemetery with her family, for suggesting this story to highlight our community during Black History Month.

A family member finds his father's grave at Hillcrest Cemetery.Ownership of the historic cemetery will soon transition to Anderson Township, which Mayer says will not reduce his organization’s volunteer efforts, but will provide a lot of much needed help with regular upkeep and maintenance