Berry Mitchell Cemetery

A symbol of a complicated racial past

The Berry Meachum Cemetery (AKA Berry Mitchell, or Meachum Cemetery) is a small abandoned cemetery that sits in the middle of a series of over grown trees, honeysuckle, thorn bushes, and poison ivy. According to a property abstract, in April, 1912, G.N. Elliott and his wife, Annie C. Elliott, granted the land to Jackson Smith, William Harris, and Rufus McMurry, who were each trustees for the 20th Century Cemetery Association. The land was officially established as a “free public burial ground for colored people” in June, 1912. A marker from 1884, however, suggests that people were being buried there before its official cemetery designation.

The property is currently owned by Michael and Tammy Hartley and is located slightly north of Brownsmill Rd. and Heitman Lane. After traveling down the Hartley’s newly built road, walking a couple hundred yards through a field, and taking a trek down a series of game trails, visitors will arrive at the abandoned cemetery in the woods.
As could be expected in an abandoned cemetery that was dedicated to free burials nearly a century ago, many of the grave markers have long-since deteriorated. Some markers were merely creek stones etched with nails (or something similar), while other grave sites are still marked with the “temporary” metal markers placed during burial. As of this writing, only about 1/5 of the burials attributed to the cemetery have identifiable stones.

According to the property abstract, the 80 acre parcel of land was sold to Berry Meachum in 1873. I have been unable to locate Berry Meachum prior to 1873. It is possible he went by another name, moved from another state, or, more likely, he was a former slave. As a result, locating records has proven to be challenging.
Interestingly, there was a John Berry Meachum (1789-1854) in St. Louis, who was a pastor, educator, and founder of the oldest black church in Missouri. Meachum was born into slavery and purchased his own freedom when he was 21. Eventually, Meachum purchased the freedom of his father and wife. After gaining his freedom, Meachum purchased several slaves and allowed them to work off their debt to earn their freedom. In addition, he and his wife, bypassed laws against educating African Americans by opening a school aboard a barge located in the middle of the Mississippi River. Because of John Berry Meachum’s prominent role in the African American community, I was hoping to find a connection with the Berry Meachum Cemetery, but I was unable to do so. I will, however, continue my search. Regardless, the story of this cemetery is still fascinating and tells a complex story of race in Lincoln County.

By 1880, Berry Meachum had married Emaline Watts and was living with their daughters (Susan and Pocahantas Meachum, and Eliza Watts). I was unable to locate marriage records, but they were likely married sometime between 1870 and 1880. In 1870, Emaline Watts was living with Charles (20), Peter (18), Mary (15), Davy (10), Isaac (7), and Eliza (4). Some of those children were fathered by Nelson Watts, one of the earliest settlers of Elsberry. He left a large portion of land to Emaline and her kids. Because the 1890 census is not available, I’m not sure when Berry Meachum died, but the property is transferred from Emaline to her daughter in October, 1890. By 1891 Emaline was living in Topeka, KS with her daughter.