Over the years since embarking on genealogy research into my family roots, I’ve been able to visit several cemeteries where my family members, ancestors and collateral relatives, have been buried. In North Carolina, where my maternal roots are, I have even been able to get the cemetery and church where my family worshiped, Strieby Congregational Church, declared a cultural heritage site. On the other hand, I had never made a pilgrimage to Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida before 2014 to see where my paternal family had lived. One of the places that was important for me to visit was the cemetery that my aunt and cousin had talked about and described, where our ancestors were buried. I knew it as the “Black City Cemetery,” from the death certificate of my great grandfather, Randel Farnell.
I was able to arrange to meet my cousin, Clark “Randy” Randolph, in Live Oak. He had spent his early years until he was about 15 living in Live Oak. He agreed to show me around. Randy and I both descend from Randel Farnell, he from Randel’s son, William, I from Randel’s daughter, Lela.
Like me, Randy was born after both our great grandfather, Randel Farnell (d. 1928) and our great grandmother Sallie Jacobs Farnell (d. circa 1905) had died. However, he did know other family members, such as Randel’s widow, Priscilla, his second wife, our step-great grandmother. She was much younger than Randel and lived until 1967.
I told Randy that I particularly wanted to see the cemetery where the family was buried. I assumed that virtually all my Farnell relatives and Williams relatives who had died in Live Oak were buried in Eastside, because it was the principal cemetery (maybe even the only cemetery) for African Americans.
Randy and I started our tour around Live Oak at the Suwannee Valley Genealogical Society library. Jinny Hancock, the president, explained that there were two sections to the cemetery. The section currently being used was well cared for by the city of Live Oak. The older section of the cemetery was privately owned. She said that section was not maintained and badly overgrown. She told us that the city had tried to buy the property so that it could maintain both sections, or even just manage it so that it could be cleaned up. The owner was not forthcoming. Jinny felt we would not be able to get into that section of the cemetery.
After leaving the library, Randy and I toured around Live Oak, looking at property sites where family homes had stood or still stood. Randy pointed out the house where he had lived. He said that when there was a storm and the street flooded he would dive off the front yard into the flood waters. I thought it amazing that he never was seriously hurt doing that, but I also couldn’t help but reflect on all the water moccasins he said would come swimming along in the flood waters. I was feeling glad I had grown up in New York City. Eventually we made our way to the cemetery.
The new section of the cemetery was very familiar to Randy. Many of his paternal relatives, the Randolphs, are buried there. We walked around looking at the various headstones. The cemetery reminded me of pictures I had seen of those in Louisiana, with large concrete slabs over the various plots, names inscribed on the slab tops. However, none of our Farnell ancestors were buried in that section. They were buried in the forest of trees on the far side of the cemetery. There was an old access road that led alongside the woods. We walked down the road but realized we couldn’t tell where anything was in the woods. We decided that it didn’t make sense to continue walking on the road when we couldn’t tell where we were. Besides, I was concerned about snakes, mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers. Only a few months earlier my legs had been devoured by chiggers while walking in the Strieby cemetery in North Carolina, landing me in the doctor’s office. I was not anxious to repeat that experience. Randy, however, was not going to be deterred.
Randy was undaunted because Randy was a former Green Beret in Vietnam. He was used to the jungle. He had walked out of Vietnam at the end of the war, through the jungle and the mountains. Though retired from his life of military undercover work, he took that same approach to the cemetery. Before I could say anything, he had run into the old cemetery, through the weeds, through the trees. All I could do was yell out, “Be careful!” He said he had found a few headstones. He began reading off the names. I was shocked. He had found the headstone of Charlie and Mamie Manker. Charlie was the son of George and Carrie (Harvey) Manker. Carrie was the sister of Ellen (Wilson) Williams, my great grandmother. He was able to see a couple more markers. Eventually the forest won. It was too difficult even for Randy to tackle. Besides, that part of the cemetery was technically private land. I wasn’t anxious for either of us to have an encounter with the local constabulary for trespassing. We hadn’t seen any police, but I did not wish to tempt fate. Yes, I’m a coward.
Needless to say, I had mixed feelings about how this cemetery visit turned out. On the one hand, I had seen in the flesh where my family members were buried. Based on information I already had that my (maternal-paternal) great grandfather Randel Farnell was buried in this cemetery in a family mausoleum and finding the Manker headstones (Mankers being on my paternal-paternal side), I feel certain that most of my Farnell-Williams ancestors are buried in Eastview Cemetery. This would be before my immediate family, my grandfather, William Gainer Williams, his wife, Lela Farnell Williams, and their children, moved to New York and then New Jersey. I only wish this cemetery was as accessible as Strieby, St. Mark’s, or Salem Cemeteries in Randolph County, North Carolina or Beech Cemetery, in Rush County, Indiana, all cemeteries wherein lie my maternal-maternal family ancestors. I hope one day this cemetery will also be easily accessible and I will be able to visit the actual gravesites of my Farnell and Williams ancestors.