Solitary black cemetery sits in Loess Hills
The Daily Nonpareil
TOM MCMAHON, Staff Writer
South Jordan Cemetery near Moorhead. The cemetery is the burial site for African-Americans who worked for an area landowner who brought them to Monona County after the slaves were freed.
MOORHEAD - According to the 2000 census, the African-American population of Moorhead was zero. That was also Turin's count. And Soldier's.
But lying in a secluded Loess Hills location, situated in the middle of all three Monona County towns, is an African-American cemetery where all but two, possibly three, of those buried are black.
The cemetery's name reflects the culture of the times. It's been referred to as "Nigger Cemetery," "Negro Cemetery" and "Black Cemetery." Its official name is South Jordan Cemetery, and it is currently managed by Jordan Township.
A tree stands in the middle of the graveyard. A few tombstones testify to remains buried there. But, most grave markers are gone - some stolen. Pieces of broken marble sit atop the freshly mowed lawn. Beer parties and hooligans have left their mark.
Judy Ehlers remembers the cemetery as a young girl.
"My ancestors own property around the area, and we would drive by here a lot," she said.
Her interest is also historical. Ehlers belongs to the Monona County Historical Society and hopes to get the burial site on the National Register of Historic Places. She's begun researching the cemetery and said mystery surrounds its inhabitants.
Ehlers said Ohio native Adam Miers settled in Jordan Township in 1856 when most of the area was still open rangeland.
She said some have speculated blacks escaped slavery and settled the area and others say Miers hired them to work on his property. Some accounts say Miers brought the African-Americans to his property from the south following the Emancipation Proclamation, others said that they were northern blacks who relocated to Miers' property to work.
Louise Falk disputes the Underground Railroad version. Her grandfather was a physician who treated many of the early African-Americans. Falk, 80, said her father told her the blacks were free people who were invited to work the land.
"He said they were good, hard workers," she said.
Rumors the African-Americans lived in Loess Hills' caves are also unfounded, according to Falk.
"There may have been a few, but most of them had houses," she said.
In a 1969 "Omaha World-Herald" article, Ward Jones, a retired farmer who lived near the cemetery, is reported as saying he was told Miers brought blacks from the south to farm the land. His brother, Earl, reported seeing Miers.
"I can remember seeing Old Adam when I was just a kid," he said. "My father had a farm not far from Adam's place, and it was nothing for us to see 10 or 15 Negroes working in the fields or cutting timber. I can remember Old Adam, too. He had long white hair that grew down to his shoulders."
While it appears Miers' wives and several of the black people who supposedly worked for him are buried in South Jordan Cemetery, no one seems to know where his body was laid to rest.
"Some say he was buried in Little Sioux and others that he is (in South Jordan), but no one has found a record or a marker," Ehlers said.
Susan Kuecker, curator of the African-American History Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, said the Monona County stories fascinate her. She, too, has heard different versions of why the African-Americans came there.
She has no definitive information, but said it is almost certain the African-Americans were not slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad. Kuecker said U.S. Census data shows Monona County had one black person in 1860, 42 in 1870, and 88 in 1880.
"The height of the Underground Railroad was from 1855 to 1860, and there was only one (African-American) there in 1860," Kuecker said. "It is more likely they were displaced by the Civil War and moved north."
She said it was not uncommon for Iowa Civil War soldiers to befriend young blacks in the south and help them find jobs, if they moved here. Kuecker said a southeast Iowa man paid African-Americans to work for him, similar to the speculation surrounding Miers.
"Most of the African-Americans that came to Iowa at that time located in the southern portion of the state," she said. "Monona County is one of the furthest northern settlements. It is very interesting. I wish we had more information about it."
Whatever their reason for coming to the area, African-Americans did not remain in Monona County.
In fact, 1880's 88 is the largest number in the county's history. The 1890 census reported 23 blacks; 1900, six; and zero in 1910. Kuecker speculated that many could have moved to Sioux City during this time to work in the packing plants that were hiring African-Americans.
The "Onawa Democrat" reported in a 1955 article that the "(Negro slaves) lived and mingled with the few white settlers living there. They intermarried and lived together in that vicinity a happy and contented life."
A report prepared for the State Historical Society by Leah Rogers offers another viewpoint.
"Whatever the case, the black settlers and surrounding Euro-American settlers were not on the best of terms. A group from Belvidere petitioned the district court for the removal of the black settlers in the 1860s."
While most left the area, some buried relatives at South Jordan.
Rogers reports the cemetery was deeded to the public in 1882 for use as a community cemetery.
One account states the cemetery held at least 20 graves at one time. All but one of its inhabitants were buried between the early 1880s and 1907. Brenda Feige, a Caucasian, was buried there in 1988 at age 41.
Ehlers said her survey of documents showed that Miers was married twice, and both those wives - Elizabeth and Mariah - are buried in the cemetery. Elizabeth was white, and Mariah, also known as Big Moll, is reported to have been either part African-American or Native American. Rogers' report indicated several of the area's dark-skinned residents were Big Moll's relatives.
Today, South Jordan holds few legible headstones - Rossie Rickman died in 1884 at eight months; George Stuard in 1884 at 49 years; Mariah Miers in 1889 at 87.
A Sept. 15, 1964, Sioux City Journal article reported vandals dug up three graves earlier that month. Ten markers remained at that time, according to the story.
Perry Moore, then 80, is quoted as saying, "When you consider it took a man with a team of horses and a 14-inch plow about two years to pay for one of those stones, they must have thought a lot of their people. If they had that much respect for their dead, it seems we ought to be able to show some, too. This is about as low as a person can get."
Moore, who lived near the cemetery, worked to keep it clean and free of trash in the 1930s. The township's trustees did another cleanup beginning in 1957, according to an Onawa Democrat article, which reported the graveyard was not well kept.
That's no longer the case for the small graveyard that sits atop a secluded hillside on gravel roads. Jordan South Cemetery grounds are definitely well kept.
As is the secret of those buried within its fenced borders.