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Shady Grove Cemetery descendants named as first trustees since 1939

Shady Grove Cemetery, a historic African-American cemetery and the site of a former one-room segregated schoolhouse, is located at 502 County Road 211 in Cape Girardeau County. Photo by Jay Forness

A group of direct descendants of those buried at Shady Grove Cemetery, an African-American cemetery in Cape Girardeau County near Dutchtown with history tracing back to the Civil War, has been awarded trusteeship of the cemetery to help preserve the historic site.

Cape Girardeau County Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Lewis approved the Shady Grove Heritage and Preservation Organization as the cemetery’s trustee on March 28.

“Everyone in our organization are direct descendants of the enslaved people buried at Shady Grove Cemetery,” Judy Giboney Humphrey, chairperson for the Shady Grove Heritage and Preservation Organization, said. “Most of them, and most of our family, came from the Giboney plantation and the Bollinger plantation.”

The cemetery was established by emancipated African Americans during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, but wasn’t officially deeded until 1891. Humphrey said she can trace her lineage to people who were enslaved at both plantations and has several family members buried at Shady Grove Cemetery – including her grandfather and Civil War veteran Washington Giboney.

“We have been working with a service in Cape to keep the grounds clean and cut the grass, but we are excited to move forward,” Humphrey said. “Our plan is to hopefully get grants and really move forward to restore the cemetery and protect it for the future.”

Humphrey said several of the headstones have been destroyed and others are severely in disrepair. Other footstones have been moved to the front of the cemetery without any indication of where they originally were placed. “We certainly would like to get some type of electric resistance survey done so we can find out where the grave sites are,” she said.

In addition, Humphrey said they hope to add a fence to the historical site and a memorial listing the names of all the people they know are buried in the cemetery.

Despite having family members buried at the cemetery, Humphrey said she wasn’t aware of the cemetery until a few years ago, as were most of the descendants now involved in the organization.

“We found out about it, we came out and visited, and we were just so shocked at how poorly it had been taken care of and the status of the cemetery,” Humphrey said. “We wanted to truly do something about it since it’s our history and American history.”

The organization began work in 2021 to have the cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The group was successful in their efforts with the help of historian Robert Blythe, and the cemetery has been on the National Register since 2022.

Once the cemetery was placed on the National Register, the organization switched focus to become a trustee for the cemetery. The cemetery’s original deed in 1891 named three trustees: Forest Renfroe, William Martin and Scott Davis, but there has been no record of a successor trustee since the original trustees died.

Humphrey said the Husch Blackwell Law Firm took on their case pro bono in order to help the organization become the new trustee.

Cape Girardeau County Archive Center Director Marybeth Niederkorn said she worked with the descendants to make sure there were no current trustees for the historic site. “There have been caretakers, but there hasn’t been an actual trustee since William Martin died in 1939,” Niederkorn said.

Niederkorn provided an affidavit to the court asserting that the county archive, recorder of deed’s office or county commission had any record of any successor trustees for Shady Grove Cemetery. She added that there hadn’t been much legal precedent for historical cemetery trusteeship.

“We are setting a precedent, so I’m hoping there are other cemeteries in similar situations that can look at this as a kind of roadmap,” Niederkorn said. “It’s been great to see all the people who have thrown in their efforts with research, outreach and the legal end of it.”

Neiderkorn is currently working on updating a book about Shady Grove, “Dark Woods and Periwinkle: A glance back at Shady Grove.” The book was originally co-edited by Sharon Sanders and Diana Steele in 1998. The new edition is planned to be published by the Cape Girardeau County Genealogical Society on June 1.

The updated book will feature information about the cemetery and the one-room segregated schoolhouse that used to be at the historic site. All proceeds from the book, which will be available on Amazon in multiple formats, will be donated to the Shady Grove Heritage and Preservation Organization to fund preservation projects.

“This place was so central to the education and religion of this community,” Niederkorn said. “The school started in 1892. We are barely one generation removed from literacy being illegal among Black people, and I don’t know that it can be overstated how important it was for these schools to grab control of the ability to educate their children.”

Through her research for the updated book on Shady Grove, Niederkorn found records showing the disparities faced by schools for Black children – with teachers being paid less and fewer supplies purchased including wood and coal to keep the school warm during the winter.

“You really get a sense of what they were up against and how they persevered,” Niederkorn said. “To me, the story of Shady Grove is ultimately a story of perseverance, survival and celebration.”

At least 250 people are buried at Shady Grove, with the last documented burial taking place in 1961. Niederkorn said there were many Black farmers living in rural Cape Girardeau County at the beginning of the 20th century who are buried at Shady Grove.

The new edition will add the original deed from the Cape Girardeau County Recorder of Deeds, new cemetery surveys of all the marked burials and a new chapter written by Denise Lincoln on Washington Giboney’s military service.

A family reunion of descendants of those buried in the Shady Grove Cemetery is planned for June 14-16 in Cape Girardeau. This will be the third reunion for descendants, with the last reunion held in 2022.

Humphrey said they have been in touch with around 400 people who can trace their lineage to someone buried at Shady Grove and around 200 people have already said they plan to attend. She said they will visit the cemetery and take part in Cape Girardeau’s Juneteenth celebration during the reunion.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at

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