Deep appreciation of African-American history drives Ghana Smith to restore local cemeteries
Janie Porter Barrett deserved better. So did Mary Smith Peake, George Washington Fields and hundreds more whose tombstones in Bassett and Elmerton cemeteries were obscured by waist-high grass and weeds.
Someone needed to do something, and someone is.
Ghana Smith, a financial system specialist at William & Mary, has been coordinating the Barrett-Peake Heritage Foundation’s restoration project of the two Hampton cemeteries for nearly 18 months. There is still work to be done, but tombstones once difficult find are now standing proud.
Smith, who is also working on her M.B.A. in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, was raised to cherish African-American history. Her mother, Linda J. Holmes, is an oral historian, health activist and author. Holmes’ most recent book is about Toni Cade Bambara, an African-American author, teacher and social activist.
“My grandmother’s house is in Uttingertown, Kentucky, which was founded by some of my own ancestors and other formerly enslaved African Americans after the Civil War,” Smith said. “We go back every summer, and I still go the same church they went to.
“It’s very important to preserve our history because some of these stories haven’t been told because of the racial climate of our country. There are so many unknown heroes — community workers and pillars of our community that are not in our history books.”
Smith didn’t major in history — she chose political science at Hampton University, from which she received her Bachelor of Arts in 1998. After graduation, she worked at HU in human resources and payroll.
In 2013, Smith was hired as assistant payroll manager at William & Mary. In April of 2019, she advanced to her new position of financial systems specialist.
Two years ago, Smith joined the Barrett-Peake Heritage Foundation. Since May 2019, she has helped coordinate restoring the Bassett and Elmerton cemeteries, which are located on King Street in Hampton.
Only five months ago, many of the final resting places of enslaved people as well as African-American pioneers were covered in grass and weeds that reached waist level. Work began weekend by weekend until in September, several dozen soldiers from Fort Eustis came out to help.
A big dent was made that day.
Visible again is the grave of Mary Smith Kelsey Peake, who started the Daughters of Zion to help the poor and a school on the grounds of what is now Hampton University. Fittingly, she is buried near a tree that resembles HU’s Emancipation Oak, which is also where the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in the south.
You can now see the tombstone of Janie Porter Barrett, who was born four months after the Civil War ended. She was a social reformer who founded the first housing settlement for African Americans and the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
And, near the King Street entrance, is the grave of George Washington Fields. After escaping slavery, Fields became the first African-American graduate of Cornell Law School. He returned to Hampton, where his daughter, Inez, joined his practice in 1928.
“Not too many people know about them,” Smith said. “We want to make sure those stories are not forgotten because they’re not in the traditional history books. That’s why it’s important for me to make sure these stories get passed on from generation to generation.”
The Barrett-Peake Heritage Foundation appreciates her efforts and enthusiasm.
“When Ms. Smith can, she explains the importance of a person’s grave when uncovered, particularly those who were historic figures in the city,” said Colita Fairfax, the foundation’s co-director. “The foundation is grateful for her volunteer efforts with these historic cemeteries and honors her for donating her talent and efforts to preserving the past.”
Those close to Smith know how much preserving African American history means to her.
“Ghana is genuinely trying to elevate the voices of people who can’t be heard anymore because they’re no longer with us,” said Jennifer Fox, assistant director of university events and Wren Building operations at W&M. “She’s really passionate about these things.
“She has a drive to better understand history for herself but also to help others understand it along the way.”
For Smith, the biggest reward is helping a family find the grave of a relative and learning about their life.
“Some of them don’t know where their family plots are, so we have some people coming out to help maintain the cemeteries looking for their family members,” Smith said. “We can be out there, and you’ll hear somebody say, ‘I found a relative!’
“You can never stop learning in this area because people want to tell you about their family. It becomes a community of people, and after we get tired and sit down, people start sharing stories about their family members.”
Smith is working on her M.B.A. in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business. With her job at W&M and volunteer work with the foundation, she’s in the Flex program. Smith said that “hopefully, prayerfully,” she will have her degree in May 2021.
“It actually has planted seeds in my mind with the volunteer work that I do marketing-wise,” Smith said of what may lie ahead. “It gives me a different perspective when I go out and recruit volunteers.
“William & Mary’s been a great place to work. I’ve been able to meet a lot of nice people — people who are into the same work like Jody (Lynn Allen) at the Lemon Project and people working out of the Wren Building. There are a lot of people into history at William & Mary, which isn’t very surprising.”