On a chilly morning in Lithonia, 35 high schools students combed an old cemetery looking for war veterans by recording the names on tombstones, many faded and broken.
“Because this is an old cemetery and a lot of people don’t visit here anymore, it’s not as well remembered,” said Mya Goodbee, 15, one of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) students from Arabia Mountain High School.
The students were part of a project to identify the veterans buried in the cemetery in time for a citywide Veterans Day celebration in November.
Jaliyah Holmes, 16, said the students were volunteering “to give honor and thanks to the people that risked their lives for their country.”
The project also gives “students some real-time history” about what they learn in the classroom and about their communities and ancestors, said Raymond Stafford, a retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant.
“It’s a remarkable opportunity for them,” Stafford said.
The cemetery, called the Lithonia Colored Cemetery or Lithonia Cemetery One, dates back to the 1800s, and has been the subject of a 10-year effort by several residents to clear overgrowth from the 6.7 acre lot.
As Stafford looked over the graves, many covered in weeds, he said, “There can be no excuse for this rich history being overlooked.
“It reminds me of [an] opportunity that was created for me,” Stafford said. “A lot of the opportunities that were afforded me were a result of what a lot of these [deceased] young men and young ladies …had to go through in order for me to have an opportunity.”
Stafford said the plan is for the students, including some from Lithonia and Miller Grove high schools, to catalog every grave in the cemetery “to assist the city of Lithonia in identifying veterans and their contributions.”
Eugene Davenport, 17, said he hopes Lithonia area residents will be inspired to help clean up the cemetery.
The veterans “have done their part and they can’t get a clean burial place for them to rest for eternity,” Davenport said. “It feels like they’re being disrespected in a way.”
Davenport said the project is “a really good way for us to…[show] our respect for the dead and the past. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn about our history and the people of Lithonia.”
“The war veterans should be remembered,” said 15-year-old Elijah Brown. “We get to live this fun life and they died at an early age. They died so we could live here.”
Barbara Lester, a former Lithonia City Council member and one of several residents working to restore the cemetery, said she is “overjoyed” with the work of the JROTC students.
“They seem to be interested in what they’re doing,” Lester said. “This is the beginning of a wonderful experience for these children.
“We often say ‘from the cradle to the grave,’” Lester said. “Well, this is from the grave to the cradle. This is letting them know [that] this is what happens when people are no longer with us.
“This is a history lesson about their own people,” said Lester, who wants the cemetery to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.