Honoring the forgotten Black servicemen: Veterans come together to restore Oaklawn Cemetery

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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — War heroes forgotten and dishonored. African-American servicemen from legendary forces like the Tuskegee Airmen, buried beneath blight and debris. But now members of the community have come together to return honor and respect to those buried in Oaklawn Cemetery.

“Standing right behind me is men from the 92nd, the 93rd, from the Tuskegee Airmen, from the Red Ball Express, from the 370-artillery group,” said Eddie Irby Jr., President and Founder of Buffalo Soldiers 92nd Infantry Division WWII.

You can just about imagine the unnerving feeling for Eddie Irby Jr. to see this section of land that is supposed to be honored and well respected, in such deplorable condition.

“These were guys, we’re not talking about old men, but these were guys 14-19 years old who took the call,” Irby said.

A call that millions of African-American soldiers were either drafted to do or left no other choice but to serve. While being treated like second-class citizens by their own country because of the color of their skin.

“It gives me chills because when you think of a kid 14, 15, 16 years old, Black, wanting to go and fight a World War knowing he can go and liberate someone else’s freedom, but when you get back over here, you still have to get on the back of the bus,” Irby said.

And through it all, many returned back to Mobile, wanting to do more for the community — only to be forgotten about in their final resting place.

“When I first walked into this cemetery, I walked in where the flag poles are, but I could not get no further than that tree because everything from there to here the weeds was above my head,” Irby said.

Irby said all he could do was pray and ask God to send him just a few people to help clean up Oaklawn Cemetery. Those prayers answered in more ways than he could ever imagine.

“Well, he didn’t send me a couple of people, he sent me a whole regiment. Because I could not get help from anybody until the Veterans stepped up,” Irby said.

Veterans near and far stepped up to the plate to turn the cemetery around.

Beautifying Oaklawn Cemetery allowed Irby to uncover a piece of history of his own. For 40 years, he had been searching for his father’s grave, only to find out his father is buried less than a mile away in yet another unkept gravesite.

“It was bad. Sometimes, I really get upset when I would go to some of these funeral homes,” said Irby.

Irby said these cemeteries should hold the same value as other historical sites around the city, and it’s important to share this story so younger generations don’t allow history to be ignored again.

“If you don’t know where you came from, how will you know where you’re going?” Irby said.

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