ELSMERE, Ky. — After vandals knocked over headstones and spray-painted graffiti at one of Northern Kentucky’s first historic Black cemeteries, community members banded together to clean up hate.
Volunteer Chris Brown said the group received overwhelming support on Saturday, with folks from Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville helping out at the Mary E. Smith Memorial Cemetery.
“People wanted to come out and help, which was just a beacon of hope for us,” Brown said. “It definitely gives new meaning to ‘hate does not win here.'”
Brown’s family home is located blocks away from the cemetery, and she has several family members buried there.
“Heartbreak would be an understatement — I was absolutely devastated,” she said. “It’s hard for me to reconcile in my mind what type of hatred you must hold inside to be willing to deface a resting place, a cemetery.”
About 30 headstones had been knocked over at the cemetery at 1120 Martin Luther King Avenue. The cemetery’s volunteer board believes that the acts were racially motivated and occurred on at least two separate occasions this month. So far, police have not found any security footage from the incidents and have made no arrests.
Tri-State social justice organization Educate. Advocate. Transcend. (EAT) coordinated Saturday’s event. A local power washing company offered its services pro bono to wash away the paint, and volunteers cleaned the sign greeting visitors at the cemetery’s entrance, which had been tagged with anarchist graffiti.
To thwart future vandals, volunteers with chainsaws cleared away brush that would obscure activity, because cemetery staff do not have the resources to keep bushes trimmed.
Wendell Bailey, whose mother-in-law is buried at Mary E. Smith cemetery, said he was glad to see unity at Saturday’s cleanup.
“It’s a good turnout,” said Bailey. “Everybody came out to clean up and support each other. It just sucks that it takes this for that to happen.”
Murray Burnam, a community and civil rights activist who has been involved in peaceful protests and organizations for more than 20 years, said he too was frustrated and angered when he saw reports of vandalism at what should be a peaceful resting place.
“With 2020 being more burdensome with everything piled on top of each other, this is just one more unnecessary act of hate and sickness,” he said. “Who thinks of going into a cemetery and desecrating or disrespecting the dead?”
That’s why he showed up Saturday to “greet hate with work” and restore the cemetery.
“Thanks for your act of hate,” Burnham says to the vandals, “because when you walk through this cemetery today, you can see the diversity of people that have showed up to help out, to try to right a wrong.”
Brown has a message for the vandals, too.
“This was a complete and utter waste of your time, because hate didn’t win,” she said.