HAMPTON — When Artistine Lang began to see the historic African-American cemetery where her parents, grandmother and brother are buried becoming abandoned, overrun with tall grass, weeds and trash, she decided to do something about it.
Lang, 70, director of the East End Neighborhood Association of the Peninsula, began raising funds and organizing clean-ups of the Pleasant Shade Cemetery in April 2011.
The cemetery, at 520 Shell Road in Hampton, is the oldest and largest public African-American cemetery on the Peninsula. Former Newport News Mayor Jessie Rattley and lawyer J. Thomas Newsome are among those buried there.
Lang's group is trying to raise money for a commercial mower — a $9,000 expense – but progress has been slow, with $5,000 raised so far, Lang said.
In the meantime, Lang's husband, Rev. Darnell Lang, 60, has been mowing the sprawling nearly 20-acre property with a noncommercial mower that frequently breaks down.
Their efforts are apparent compared to snapshots from before cleanup began, but there is much more work to be done.
The group's goals include getting a permanent sign installed to identify the cemetery, which it does not have now, and getting the site approved on the Register of Historic Places.
"If we have it declared historical, some of these loose ends could be tied up and we wouldn't have so much difficulty trying to get people to support it," Artistine Lang said.
Volunteers are also working on getting a registry published that would document where each person is buried, which will help visitors find family members.
"When you come to a 20-acre site, you could walk all day and not find the person you're seeking," said Mary Kayaselcuk, a city historian who has also been helping with the Langs' efforts. "We want to bring some kind of logic there as much as we can."
The group has divided the cemetery into 14 sections with Biblical names. When the registry is done, it will go online, and pamphlets will be placed in churches and schools, Kayaselcuk said.
The maintenance got so bad that some people have had relatives who were buried at the cemetery moved elsewhere, Artistine Lang said.
"I don't understand why anyone would do that considering the historical nature of it," she said.
Lang has sent letters to family members of those buried at the cemetery, but many are growing older.
"You look at the age of those donating and think, 'Once they're gone, what are you going to do?'" Artistine Lang said. "We have worn out all our options."
Kayaselcuk is in awe of the Langs for their efforts, she said, and is grateful someone sees the cemetery's historical value.
"Her and her husband are absolutely determined to make this thing happen, and almost single handedly," Kayaselcuk said. "If they don't do it, nobody else is going to maintain the cemetery."
Clift can be reached at 757-247-7870.
Want to help?
People who wish to donate to help preserve Pleasant Shade Cemetery can send checks payable to East End Neighborhood Association of the Peninsula Inc. to P.O Box 9233, Hampton 23670 or visit http://www.pleasantshadecemetery.org and click "Donate."
People who wish to volunteer to weed, mow grass and clean up old flowers should call Darnell Lang at 757-287-5264 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun