YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A volunteer group has expanded its efforts to honor local veterans by identifying their gravesites and bestowing on these men and women the recognition they deserve.
Two years ago, the Broadhead and Wydell Memorial Team began researching burial plots at Oak Hill Cemetery in order to replace the headstones and markers of United States veterans dating from the War for Independence.
Today, the small group has dedicated itself to researching other local cemeteries to identify the graves of veterans that lack acknowledgement of their service to the country.
“We decided that we would go to other cemeteries to get a good veterans list,” says Steffon Jones, a co-founder of the group. “We wanted to remember the soldiers and what they fought for and to give them the respect they deserve.”
The COVID-19 pandemic derailed most of the group’s work over the last 18 months. But it is now back in action, Jones says.
Much of the research at Oak Hill was derived from a list compiled during the 1930s and 1940s by the Works Progress Administration, Jones says. Still, the team found many headstones of veterans in disrepair, some plots with no headstones at all.
Jones and his team performed the research and appealed to the U.S. Veterans Administration to replace many of the markers, including those of several soldiers who served with U.S. Colored Troop regiments during the Civil War.
Thus far, the group has completed its work at Oak Hill and is now conducting research at Tod Cemetery and Belmont Park Cemetery in Youngstown and Churchill Cemetery in Liberty Township.
Team member Lester Darnell, a veteran of the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era, says volunteers plan to count every headstone in the cemetery that isn’t marked as military and create a list of their names. “We have to go through every single name and determine if they were military,” he says. “
The task has proved challenging, Darnell says, since many plots are marked with private headstones that don’t recognize military service. Moreover, the WPA never canvassed these particular cemeteries, leaving the group to conduct new research.
“We’re doing what the WPA did during the 1930s,” Jones says.
Once a veteran is properly identified, the group petitions the local Veterans Commission to provide flag holders for his grave, Jones says.
“We have to find out who the veterans are,” Jones says. In some cases, the group has found that flag holders or service markers were erroneously placed on plots of those who never served in the military.
Initially, the group wanted to complete one cemetery per year but has limited its work to finish just portions of the cemeteries annually. “The research takes time,” Jones says.
Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, says that Jones’ research has been critical toward honoring those veterans that might otherwise be forgotten (See story here).
“He’s passionate about recognizing Civil War vets who are lost,” he says, especially his work to identify members of the U.S. Colored Troops. “One of the greatest things he’s done through his research and determination was to get official U.S. government military markers for those that were unmarked.”
It was veteran Tony Seldes, along with Jones and Tom Anderson who led the effort 16 years ago to add Pvt. Jacob Nixon Robinson’s name to the Youngstown Civil War memorial monument downtown. Robinson, from Youngstown, served in the 5th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops and died during his service at Fort Monroe, Va.
When the monument was dedicated in 1870, however, with the names of those soldiers from Youngstown who perished during the war, Robinson’s name was left off.
“Knowing that he died from disease while in the military, he definitely deserved to be there,” Lawson says.
Pictured at top: The Broadhead and Wydell Memorial Team is now researching U.S. veteran gravesites at Tod Cemetery and Belmont Park Cemetery in Youngstown and Churchill Cemetery in Liberty Township.