Effort To Preserve Hartford's Decaying 'Old South' Cemetery Is Struggling

Local GovernmentPoliticsPublic OfficialsPedro E. SegarraEddie A. Perez

In the shadows of an ongoing multimillion-dollar renovation of the Fox Elementary School building on Maple Avenue sits a barely noticeable, fenced-off piece of land containing a few hundred graves and a handful of markers in varying stages of decay and disrepair.

It is the Old South Burying Ground, half-jokingly called "Hartford's other cemetery" by a dwindling group of people who are trying to save it.

Established in 1800, "Old South" is the resting place for Thomas Seymour, the city's first mayor, and Hannah Hudson, who was the state's first female newspaper publisher and is credited with saving The Hartford Courant – then known as the Connecticut Courant — from being shut down in 1777.

But while the Ancient Burying Ground downtown and, more recently, the Old North Cemetery on North Main Street have received attention and financial support, Old South has continued to waste away.

"Something's got to be done," said Byron Benton, 91, who has several generations of his family buried there and has written an historical account of Old South.

"It's time we got something done and make use of all the research we've done," Benton said.

Ruth Shapleigh-Brown, director of the Connecticut Gravestone Network and one of the few remaining volunteers trying to save Old South, agreed.

"I would love to see something that makes this look respectful again," she said. "And this isn't it."

Shapleigh-Brown said the group, which peaked at about 35 to 40 supporters and now numbers fewer than the fingers on one hand, began its effort to save the cemetery in the late 1990s. They held workshops, organized tours, did research and met with city officials in an effort to stop the cemetery's decay, secure funding and promote visitorship.

"We started with Mayor [Mike] Peters. That's how long we've been yakking about this stuff," she said.

After several years of stops and starts, Shapleigh-Brown said the group started making progress with Mayor Eddie A. Perez's administration and even sat down to meet with Perez in July of 2003 to discuss their efforts.

City Manager Lee Erdmann also toured the cemetery that summer and discussed the cost of replacing the chainlink fence that surrounds Old South with a historic ornamental fence, much like the one the city recently had placed around Old North.

But their efforts ground to a halt when Perez was arrested and ultimately convicted on corruption charges.

"When the Perez stuff erupted we had to stop," she said, adding that she hasn't reached out to Mayor Pedro Segarra's administration.

Help may finally be on the way, though.

Antonio Matta, the city architect who is overseeing the effort to restore and maintain the municipal cemeteries such as Old North, which received a $1.25 million commitment over the next 10 years, said Old South has not been forgotten.

Matta said that a master plan is being designed and that work in Old South could begin within a year.

"We need and have an obligation to honor those from the past who have positively contributed to our city's growth and development," Mayor Pedro Segarra said in an email Friday. "Given our economic challenges, the most effective approach to preserving our significant cultural assets is to leverage partnerships with those who have shared interests in our city's future."

Shapleigh-Brown is cautiously optimistic that yet another round of meetings with city officials will render results.

But her group will go to the meetings with the expectation that the group will be kept in the loop on plans that are being made.

"We've been the watchdog group for so long," she said.

Sadly, Shapleigh-Brown, who said she's still willing to give tours to anyone who will "damn-well listen," also acknowledged that it's too late to save many of the remaining headstones.

"There's not much we can restore anymore," she said, "but the history and the stories here still have a right to exist."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Local GovernmentPoliticsPublic OfficialsPedro E. SegarraEddie A. Perez
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