GALLIPOLIS — Concerned residents approached the Gallipolis City Commission on Tuesday in regard to a new marker erected in the Pine Street Colored Cemetery and whether or not its location was a tasteful choice.
Gallipolis City Commission ultimately agreed to move the sign in an attempt to reach a compromise with concerned residents by aiming to place it closer to Pine Street and down an embankment.
Marlin Griffin addressed the commission first with his concerns.
“John Gee moved to Gallipolis, Ohio, as a young man,” he said. “He became one of the community’s largest landowners. He used his financial resources to provide local African Americans with more opportunity. John Gee also donated four acres of land to establish the Pine Street Colored Cemetery in 1860. Numerous prominent African Americans were interred into the ground due to the segregation of the Pine Street Cemetery across the street.”
Among those in the cemetery, Griffin listed Phoebe Smith, who established a mutual aid society that assisted slaves in gaining freedom at the time, as well as 56 African American soldiers. Gee is also buried in the cemetery.
“I feel — and some of the citizens of Gallipolis feel — to put a sign or a marker in this historical cemetery is a travesty,” Griffin said. “For one, to put this sign five feet from someone’s burial grave is a travesty. Two, not even to consult or contact the John Gee Society or any of the African Americans in the city is also a travesty. Three, to have this sign in the making of a headstone to be in this cemetery. Furthermore, is putting signs in cemeteries the thing we are doing now? I feel we have no regard for sacred and holy ground. If this sign can be placed in Pine Street Colored Cemetery, can political signs or digital signs be put in there also? It is a disgrace to not only Gallipolis and the black community as a whole. I’m standing here to ask the question, ‘Why did the city (not communicate) in putting this marker there?’”
Gallipolis City Manager Gene Greene answered Griffin. Gallipolis resident Cletus Harder had originally donated some other stonework and signage to the city which was placed outside the Gallipolis City Building. Harder desired to place another such piece of signed stonework in town.
“We got into contact with Gallipolis in Bloom and decided where they wanted to put it,” Greene said. “They wanted to put it somewhere where it could be seen coming into town. So that was the place that they chose to put it. In no way did we mean to disrespect or take away from anything. We only wanted to add something to welcome people into our town. That being said, the city has maintained and taken care of that cemetery for probably well over 60 or 70 years.”
Greene said he needed to check further but felt the city may have a deed to the property. Greene asked the question if the city maintained a piece of property did they need to ask individuals if they needed permission to do activities on city property. Griffin felt the answer to that was yes given the historical nature of the cemetery.
Griffin stated he felt the stone marker took away from the historical nature of the cemetery and asked if political signs could also be placed there. Greene replied he did not think political signs could be placed there. Griffin felt it was inappropriate the John Gee Black Historical Center had not been contacted in regard to the stone marker, given its ties to the cemetery. Greene said if where the marker was placed was considered city property, he did not feel that the city necessarily needed to contact the center. He said the decision of the marker’s placement would ultimately be up to the five city commissioners.
One man in the room said he brought up the point that he was not arguing whether the location of the marker was a good place to put a sign, but whether it was a proper place to do so. Following individuals addressing the commission echoed concerns that the African American community had not been asked whether the marker should be placed in a cemetery that housed the African American community’s deceased.
“The only reason that cemetery was ever established was because at that time in 1860, blacks could not be buried in the Pine Street Cemetery,” Elaine Armstrong said. “It was born out of a need. Whoever did the marker, it’s beautiful. It’s kept in taste with the markers and (headstones) that are (in the cemetery), but the location (of the new marker) is totally inappropriate.”
“I understand your frustration and maybe it was an oversight on our part,” Greene said. “It was not meant to disrespect. It was done to invite people into the town. By no means would we do something to disrespect John Gee or anybody else. It was an oversight, evidently, on our part. I’m not saying if we move it, it’ll be in once piece because its slate. When Mr. Harder built it, he put rebar in it and I don’t know if we can move it without damaging it or breaking it. But if that’s what you wish to do, and these five gentlemen (commissioners) wish to do, we’ll take a backhoe and we’ll dig it up. I can guarantee it’s in about a yard and a half of concrete.”
Commissioner Roger Brandeberry brought up concern with whether the stone could be placed in the right of way near the highway. Commissioner Steve Wallis asked if the marker was placed further down an embankment if that would still be a concern. Commissioner Matt Johnson elaborated on a newly proposed location with photographs of where the marker was currently located.
Residents who approached the commission seemed agreeable to the newly discussed location. Commissioners said they would need to look into specific legalities regarding the right-of-way laws near the road.
Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2103.