In honor of Black History Month, the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Restoration Organization (BMECRO) on Thursday presented Clay Electric Cooperative representatives with a plaque to recognize the co-op’s contributions to ongoing restoration efforts at the historic cemetery.
The small presentation ceremony took place at the cemetery in Archer after Clay Electric awarded an $11,000 grant to Keep Alachua County Beautiful and earmarked it for the cemetery project. Clay Electric generated the grant money with its Operation Round Up program, which rounds up customer bills to the nearest dollar to support community causes within the co-op’s coverage area.
Bethlehem Episcopal Cemetery started as an unnamed burial ground for slaves, with some graves dating back to the 1840s. In 1875, ex-slaves built a small wooden church at the site and named it Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, which they adapted for the cemetery as well.
The church itself was torn down in the 1950s, but a few family burials continued as late as the 1980s, although the vast majority predate World War II. Over the years, the cemetery became neglected, covered in weeds and tree limbs, with headstones wearing away, falling over or disappearing. While many of the surviving stones have an epitaph saying, “Gone but not forgotten,” that is exactly what happened to the cemetery.
But descendants of those buried there did remember. In 1999, Clyde Caretha Williams, founder of the BMECRO, started the first attempt to clean it up. However, many of the graves were now unmarked, leaving little trace of the people buried there.
In 2018, Roberta Lopez took over as president of BMECRO and focused on getting funding to help identify and restore the graves and headstones.
“Although we know of 90 graves, we believe there are many others,” Lopez said. “My ancestors are buried here, dating back to my great-great-great grandfather, who was a slave at Cottonwood Plantation.”
Lopez enlisted the help of Marty Hilton from the UF Historic Preservation Program, who was able to secure a $25,000 state grant and identify other graves using ground penetrating radar. In 2019, a Keep Alachua County Beautiful grant allowed for a survey and removal of fallen trees from Hurricane Irma. It also helped supply volunteer labor for the clean-up.
In May 2019, the cemetery was added to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of historic sites to save.
Other organizations to aid in the effort include Duke Energy, Keep America Beautiful and Warehouse. The City of Archer and Waste Pro have helped with removal of debris and maintenance.
The Clay Electric funding provided for removal or pruning of some two dozen trees that were threatening grave stones in late 2020.
Keep Alachua County Beautiful is planning to hold volunteer events to further advance the restoration of the cemetery.