As families around the country gather for Thanksgiving, a local family is continuing their efforts to show gratitude for their ancestors by erecting a sign on the burial ground at Antioch Baptist Church.
Recently, the family of Reuben Gay, Sr. was joined by members of the community, including Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson and County Commissioner Charles Rousseau in dedicating the sign.
“The blessing is to be able to honor them and preserve the cemetery where many of our family members were buried,” said Donna Hann, Gay’s great-great-great-granddaughter. “I give thanks to my ancestors for all they had to endure to make us who we are today.”
The sign is a memorial to both members of the Gay family and of the Inman community laid to rest at the cemetery. Handmade crosses will be planted to mark the graves, a small sign to let those long passed know that they are not forgotten.
The sign also includes a poem by Meranda Bradley, a descendant of the wife of Reuben Gay Jr.’s wife, Carrie Forts Gay. The poem, “Sea Shell Whispered Name,” evokes several of the graves at the cemetery adorned with sea shells, a mourning custom enslaved peoples brought with them from Africa.
Led by Hann, descendants of Reuben Gay, Sr. researching their history traced their ancestral roots to the cemetery at Antioch Baptist Church. Ancestors and slaves alike are buried in the cemetery adjacent to the official church cemetery, but the overgrowth had covered up many of the headstones. Seeking to preserve both their family history and the lives of those buried there, many dating back to pre-Emancipation, family members started cleaning the cemetery in 2017, with the blessing of the church that Reuben Gay, Sr. himself once attended.
It was at the church where he was baptized in November 1862. He is listed in church papers as a “colored servant of Thomas Boiling Gay.”
The church has been integral in helping to paint a portrait of the community at the time. Thankfully, they kept thorough records from their history, allowing Hann and the family to learn more about their lineage.
“The research has opened many doors for the family. We understand the who, what, and why,” she said. “It has been very emotional and overwhelming. It’s amazing to look at my great-great-great-grandfather in black and white on paper.”
As the family continues preserving their heritage, they hope to soon be recognized by the state. A long process in the making, they recently submitted their application for the Reuben Gay Place, the old homestead of Reuben Gay, Sr., to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cherished gathering spot for the Inman community would be the first African-American Historical Landmark in Fayette County. Research that has been years in the making should come with a response next year.
For all that Reuben Gay, Sr. and the Inman community did to lay the groundwork for today, it is a small but heartfelt gesture.