Patching mysteries in history: Lifelong resident uncovering history six feet under

County natives Marlene Branson (left) and Bill Davidson walk the line between the white and African-American sections at Green Mount Cemetery in Waynesburg. The pair are working to uncover African-American history by retracing their family trees. Davidson, whose family is buried at Green Mount, said the headstones for white burials were positioned to face away from the African-American section, as seen here. (Photo by Samantha Karam)

Bill Davidson tasked himself with a feat to last many lifetimes, by recognizing those who walked this earth lifetimes ago.

“I would see cemeteries and the older guys I worked with would point them out and that’s where my interest started,” he said.

Born in 1947, Davidson, now 72, lived in Waynesburg until joining the Navy in 1966. He served until he was discharged in 1970. Starting in 1972, he worked for Equitable Gas (now called EQT) until retiring in 2001. Almost immediately after beginning with the gas company, Davidson started researching the county’s cemeteries with a simple goal in mind: construct his family tree.

“Of course, I didn’t do anything on company time,” he said jokingly.

Davidson soon discovered at least five generations of his family (both maternal and paternal) are buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Waynesburg. The cemetery dates to the 1850s, Davidson said. He isn’t sure where his family members before that time are buried, but his paternal and maternal grandfathers, grandmothers, mother, father, brother, paternal uncle and two paternal cousins are all buried at Greenmount.

“It’s African-American history, it’s my family history,” he said of his work. “And it’s general genealogy, trying to find the hidden history of Greene County on all sides.”

He estimates there are around 600 gravesites across Greene County, from single graves to huge plots like Green Mount. He hasn’t located them all, and said he probably never will, but knows the names and approximate locations, based on inquiries from others and his research through old obituaries, courthouse records and the genealogy society. He has a growing topography map of the county’s cemeteries, which he is filling in as he goes. His last count, about five years ago, put the number at 550 sites.

“I didn’t start it. I won’t finish it. But I just do what I can,” he said.

Davidson said the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which began as a way to create jobs and repair infrastructure after the 1929 stock market crash, would visit and record cemeteries with veterans in them as one of the program’s public works projects. Surveying through WPA began in 1934 and 1935, but it’s a practice that has been going on since the first cemetery, Davidson said.

“I just felt like doing it,” he said. “I knew very little, people passed away and I never got a chance to talk to them.”

He’s currently working with childhood friend Marlene Branson, originally of Pitt Gas in Clarksville. Davidson said they share “things of interest” with each other and even coauthored a book in 2002: “Early African American Life in Waynesburg, Greene County, Pennsylvania.”

Branson has written 17 books on African-American history. Her research dates to 1984 when she “took the information and put it to pen,” she said. “I started out recording all the Africans in the census from 1920.”

She estimates that less than 1% of the county’s graves are of African-Americans.

Davidson said the well-known cemeteries where the county’s African-American residents rest — either plots entirely dedicated to African-Americans or with a designated section — are as follows: the Burgess Family Burying Ground in Deep Valley, a graveyard in Carmichaels, Cumberland Presbyterian Cemetery in Jefferson, East Waynesburg Cemetery, which is no longer there, Green Mount Cemetery in Waynesburg, Negro Run Cemetery in Gilmore, Porter Lantz in Blacksville, Shannon Run Cemetery in Perry and Valley Chapel in Holbrook.

“Everyone else is buried in other cemeteries (or) wherever they want,” Branson said. “I don’t think there was discrimination in terms of where you could be buried.”

On a daily basis, Davidson also works with Jan Slater in the state of Washington, who has family in Greene County, and Darlene Haring of Waynesburg, another friend of his who is trying to visit all the county’s African-American gravesites.

“There’s just a lot of people doing a lot of research and every once in a while we find something,” he said. “But every family has history and if we can delve into that we can sometimes come up with something we weren’t aware of.”

For example, Davidson noted two white men, immigrants, are buried in the section at Green Mount dedicated to African-Americans.

“(They) might not have had friends or was more familiar with African-Americans,” Branson said.

Davidson has a 14-year-old daughter, Amanda, whom he hopes will carry on searching their family history. He said she is gaining interest in his work.

“She’s paying attention whenever I talk now,” he said. “In my research, everything will be passed down to Amanda.”

Davidson said the funny thing about genealogy, about history in general, is that once he patches a hole in the timeline another one presents itself.

“I have a set of cemetery records and I have no idea who did them, but there are several hundred pages of them and they are Greene County,” he said. “A lot of times we clear up a mystery or it becomes a deeper mystery.”

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