Essie J. Handy cemetery gets historic marker

Published 7:00 pm Monday, April 8, 2019

LaFAYETTE — The Essie J. Handy Cemetery will live forever in Alabama history in the Alabama Historical Society, and now there is a historical marker for signifying all the hard work that went into even making the cemetery a reality.

On Monday morning, the Essie J. Handy Cemetery Historical Society unveiled a new plaque and received a certificate from the historical society commemorating the event.

Albert Handy, son of Essie J. Handy, said in 1940 when Essie’s son, Ralph Handy, died of tuberculosis, she was only able to bury him in Gresham Cemetery on 1st Avenue, as they were African Americans in the South during times of segregation. He said the cemetery was “saturated with bodies” and his mother knew she had to do something about it.

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“There were those in the community who looked at that cemetery and said why, and Essie Handy looked at the cemetery and dreamed of a new cemetery and said why not,” Albert Handy said.

He said his mother went around collecting nickels, dimes and quarters until she raised $600 to purchase the land where the Essie J. Handy Cemetery sits now, the asking price from a judge at the time.

She bought land at what is now 402 B Street SW to start a new cemetery where her family and the families of other African Americans in Chambers County could be buried in 1949. That same year, she had her son’s body exhumed and transferred to the new cemetery.

She operated and took care of the cemetery until her death in 1977. Afterward, it was deeded to the city of LaFayette for $1. Charlotte Blasingame, who served Monday as her final day as the cemetery associate executive director due to her being elected to the city council, said the price of the marker at the cemetery was $2,400. She said her board of directors raised the money, and it wouldn’t be possible without them.

Blasingame said there is still more work to do, and there is a bank account set up in the Farmer and Marchant’s Bank in LaFayette in the cemetery’s name that will take donations. She said no amount is too small.

Mayor Barry Moody was also on hand Monday morning, calling it a great day in LaFayette when a city can preserve the past, live in the present and build for the future.

“We all have as a goal to make a good city even better,” he said. “We very blessed to live in this city, and we are thankful for our past, and we want to make sure that we do everything as we move forward to continue to build and make this a better place to live.”

Councilman Toney Thomas said he grew up in the same neighborhood as Essie Handy and she was a civil rights leader in the area. He said as he grew up and was elected to the LaFayette City Council, he wanted to do something to continue that legacy. He was part of the council purchasing 3.5 acres of land to expand Essie J. Handy Cemetery and keep its future alive.

“For the future purposes, the cemetery will look good,” he said. “We saw the need to do something, and we acted on it.”

Merilyn Vines, a family friend of the Handy’s, said Essie Handy was a strong person who she can vividly remember.

“She was a very courageous and outspoken person who despite the times, walked with the angels, I think,” she said. “It was not easy to do the things that she did back in the times. It seems easy now, but back in the ‘40s, in establishing the cemetery, life was different, laws were different and the rules were different.

“Regardless, right it is right, and she held focus on what is right by doing the right thing.”

Albert Handy told another story about his mother’s determination to make things right in LaFayette. He said when he was younger, black children didn’t have a playground they were allowed to play on. So, his mother purchased five acres of land by what is now John Powell Elementary School and before she died, she deeded the property to the Chambers County Board of Education.

Albert Handy said when his sister died two years ago, he thought he had lost contact with LaFayette forever after leaving 60 years ago. However, now he always has a reason to come home.

“No matter how far I traveled and how far I went I always came back because of my family,” he said. “This marker and cemetery will always give me a contact and a reason to come back.”