Kelly Berg has always been fascinated by military history. So when he read about Hillcrest Cemetery in Cincinnati having fallen into disrepair, he wanted to help.
Hillcrest is the final resting place of hundreds of Black veterans who served from the Civil War in the 1860s through the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
When he first visited, most of the headstones were crumbling and askew. Some were turned at 45-degree angles, making them appear to fall down the hill and giving the impression this hallowed place, meant to honor war heroes, had been forgotten.
It had been.
Now, those headstones stand straight and proud.
Hillcrest has no paid staff. Maintenance is a volunteer effort led by Friends of Hillcrest Cemetery and board Chairman Col. Todd Mayer.
Berg, a Duke Energy rates and regulated strategy analyst in Cincinnati, helped get financial support from the Duke Energy Foundation. Hillcrest’s refurbishment is aligned with Foundation goals, said Kim Vogelgesang, principal Foundation manager.
Mayer estimates the cemetery is 40% military. “We believe we have 1,400 veterans buried here, and all branches of service are represented, except for Space Force,” he said. “We have 1,150 markers; we’re still trying to figure out exactly who’s here.”
Everyone buried here is African American since cemeteries were once segregated.
One of the most famous American units from World War I was the 369th Infantry, the Harlem Hellfighters. The 369th was sent to France in 1917, where they served 191 days on the front line and were cited for bravery and decorated with French military honors.
Berg had yet to uncover all this history when he became interested in Hillcrest.
Soon after his initial visit, Berg brought colleagues for a volunteer project. Every year since, the team has returned for a service day of landscaping and cleaning headstones.
“The roots tear up stones underground,” Mayer said. “And when a tree falls, it can damage or destroy markers.”
By 2016, Mayer, a retired Army officer who served from 1985-2015 and fought in Desert Storm, had recruited Berg to join the Friends of Hillcrest board. Veterans created the nonprofit that maintains and oversees the cemetery in about 2001, Mayer said.
Berg took Vogelgesang of the Duke Energy Foundation to see Hillcrest before restoration began.
“It was such a shame – gut-wrenching, really – to see it in such deplorable conditions,” she said. “Graves were collapsing everywhere. Kelly is a humble army of one out there with his weed eater, and he’s restoring dignity and honor to the people buried there.”
Berg said he’s had “tons of help” over the years. There are times he’s alone in the vast cemetery – toiling in solitude but finding peace in the task.
Berg has done a bit of everything – straightened and cleaned headstones, helped map the property to determine who’s buried there, landscaped, given tours, converted paper burial records to electronic ones.
Sometime after 1960, many of the paper records burned in a fire at the caretaker’s house. What remains are paper records from Union Baptist Church, the group in charge of plots since 1966. Tombstones aren’t always reliable sources. Time has worn off the engraving on many, so the name and birth and death dates aren’t legible. Some stones were hidden under vegetation; others are just missing.
Volunteers have become detectives.
“A lot of people buried here couldn't afford their burial,” Berg said. “They were buried without a marker.”
Records have been saved electronically. “My daughter and I did the majority of the initial entry of paper records,” Berg said. “Don Bishop, a retired Marine and board member, has been in charge of the electronic records.”
After Hillcrest was mapped, volunteers uploaded the data to findagrave.com. Bishop has done the newer entries, research and mapping. There’s now a list of names and plot numbers to help families find their loved ones.
One day, I was out there with my chainsaw,” Mayer said. “Two men in a truck approached me, and one said, ‘I can’t find my dad’s grave.’
“We had just cleaned up that section,” Mayer said. “He’d been here twice, but it was so overgrown, he couldn’t find the grave. But this time, we were able to help. This man was in his 50s, and he was 6 months old when his father died. This was the first time he’d gotten to see his dad’s grave. It was very emotional. Seeing reactions like his is what keeps us coming back.”
Berg now has a few favorite sites and stories.
When looking at one soldier’s Civil War enlistment document, he noticed the enslaved man’s owner signed the document. The slave owner had to give permission for another man to risk his life. “It makes you realize,” he said, “how much extra effort it took an African American to volunteer to serve our country.”
One meaningful spot for Berg is the resting place of a World War I soldier who served with the 370th, the first military unit with all African American officers. “The Germans called them the ‘Black Devils’ for how ferociously they fought,” Berg said. “It was great when that stone was uncovered,” he said, “and could be placed where people could see it again.”
Mayer’s favorite spot is “on the hill behind the flagpole, where you can look out over the graves and see the hills of Kentucky. Knowing you’re amongst all this American history is awe-inspiring.”
For Berg, there’s something almost spiritual about being at Hillcrest. “It’s like touching a part of our past,” he said. “I like to say, out loud, the name of the person on the stone I’m working on. It might be the first time they’ve been remembered in quite a long time.”
Service members buried at Hillcrest include:
- 842 World War I soldiers.
- 344 World War II soldiers.
- 29 soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, including members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry; at least one (Trooper Lou Jones) fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt.
- 29 soldiers who served in Korea, including two killed in action.
- An estimated 25 Buffalo soldiers – African American soldiers who primarily served on the Western frontier following the Civil War.
- At least 10 Purple Heart recipients.
- Five Civil War veterans, including members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, made up of free men of color and newly liberated enslaved men. (The 54th was the subject of the 1989 movie, “Glory,” for which Denzel Washington won a best supporting actor Oscar.)
- Four soldiers who served in Vietnam.
- One member of the Women’s Army Corps.