November 27, 2021

Little known of Black settlers buried at Iowa cemetery

MOORHEAD, Iowa (AP) — On a secluded ridge surrounded by trees and corn lies a unique piece of Monona County history that few seem to know exists.

Fewer know the story behind the South Jordan Cemetery, and even those who have spent years researching the tiny plot, where members of a small group of African-Americans who settled in this area after the Civil War are buried, have numerous questions.

The Sioux City Journal reports that local history buffs hope the placement of the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year will lead to more publicity about the site and help them unearth answers to questions people like Judy Ehlers have pondered for years.

“It’s important to me because there isn’t anyplace like this,” said Ehlers, who grew up three miles down the road and lives in nearby Soldier. “There’s just not a lot of Black cemeteries in Iowa.”

Chairwoman of the Monona County Historic Preservation Commission, Ehlers worked on the application for the National Register, a designation she thinks could help lead to grant funding to erect signage to raise awareness of the site and direct visitors to the remote location.

Those signs could attract more visitors, and maybe one of them will show up with information key to solving some of history’s mysteries about this scenic site in the middle of the Loess Hills.

Any story in the media leads to a few new inquiries and comments, said Sharon Holverson, of Moorhead, a historic commission member with Ehlers.

At some point, she believes, the publicity will lead to a descendant of these long-ago settlers coming forward. It’s certainly piqued the curiosity of the locals, she said.

“We were surprised people felt as strongly as they did about this place,” Holverson said of the reaction after the cemetery achieved National Register status.

Established in 1882, the cemetery lies between Moorhead, Turin and Soldier and is maintained by the Jordan Township Board of Trustees. Located at the intersection of 260th Street and Peach Avenue in rural Moorhead and tucked in among the trees, it’s a peaceful spot where few passing vehicles disturb the gentle sound of leaves rustling in the breeze.

Not much is known about the 60-90 Black settlers who called this area home. Ehlers said Adam Miers, a white man from Ohio, settled here in 1856 and later brought many of the settlers here, employing some of them on his farm.

Historians know the settlers, believed to be freed slaves, arrived sometime after the Civil War. No remnants remain of the settlement, which according to various stories consisted of dugouts into the hills, sod houses and more conventional dwellings.

Ehlers said it’s unknown why the settlers left. She suspects they went to more populated areas seeking better jobs. Most were gone by 1910.

While they were here, Miers deeded land for the cemetery, which has been known through the years as the Black Cemetery or Negro Cemetery. It’s believed that 20 people are buried here, two of them in 1884, according to the only two gravestones on which the date of death is visible. Two white women who lived nearby were buried here much more recently, one in 1988, the other earlier this year.

Ehlers hopes more research of cemetery records will reveal the exact number of graves in the cemetery, but even if she can find that information, locating the graves will remain a challenge. Less than half have markers, and most of those are broken off or the names on them can’t be read anymore. Depressions in the ground indicate other possible graves.

Ehlers and Holvorson said some of the mystery may have roots in racial prejudice. They’ve heard stories of interracial marriages between Black and white settlers. Through the years, some white families didn’t want to admit the relationships and may have removed gravestones in order to keep them secret.

This is where getting the cemetery placed on the National Register might pay off. If it can lead to an influx of grant money, local historians would like to hire someone to locate the graves. Repairing and replacing damaged gravestones is also on the wish list.

With the historic designation now in place, Ehlers no longer frets that the cemetery and the people buried in it will be forgotten.

“It’s something that’s unique and I didn’t want it to be lost, and I worried that in another 50 years it wouldn’t be here,” she said.