Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dedicated Researcher Uses NEARA Records

Jeanette Darris of Black Rock is using NEARA
tools to identify unmarked graves. 
By Fatme Myuhtar-May

At least 50 graves in the Oak Forest Cemetery in Lawrence County, including a section of the cemetery dating back to the Civil War, have no headstones. Jeanette Darris of Black Rock has spent years trying to unravel the cemetery's mysteries.

Darris, 68, has visited the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives at least three times per week for years. She has scoured through newspapers on microfilm, court records, school census records and, an online genealogical database, to search for information about all those buried in the cemetery.

The cemetery, which still accepts burials, is among the county’s largest and has more than 2,000 graves. The land for the cemetery was donated in 1861 by Dr. J.W. Coffman, who was a noted local physician and landowner. The oldest known grave belongs to the “infant son” of George and Virginia McGhehey, a baby who died in 1861.

Many of the graves, especially the earliest ones, have no headstones and the cemetery books contain only basic information, sometimes missing full names and/or dates of birth. A section of the cemetery contains mysterious unmarked graves that date back to the Civil War and possibly are those of soldiers. Darris discovered this information about the unmarked graves from former cemetery caretaker Richard Spades, who talked with her before his death. There are, however, no records in the cemetery’s books about who might be buried in those graves.

Darris has a personal connection to the cemetery. All her family is buried there: parents, siblings, husband and son, some of whom have died during the last 10 years. Now, Darris is on a personal mission: to supply the 50 to 75 unmarked graves with simple markers that include names and, where known, dates of birth and death. She has enlisted the help of her son-in-law, a skilled craftsman, to create markers out of molded concrete. Darris accepts small donations to purchase concrete to use for the markers. For more information, she can be contacted at

At the same time, Darris is compiling a genealogical cemetery book in which she includes all the information she has discovered through sifting cemetery records, newspaper obituaries, census data, accounts by surviving family members and information from Darris’s book will reproduce any available photographs of those buried in the cemetery and photos of headstones, which she has taken herself, and will include include available personal information about the deceased, such as name, dates of birth and death, parents’ names and children’s names. Most of the information comes from resources available at NEARA.

She wants the book to be ready and available during the annual Foothills Festival, which is held on the first Saturday of November in Black Rock. Darris plans to present her research during the event, exhibited alongside her craftwork that includes clay-pot dolls, candle holders, painted pots and holiday ornaments.

Darris is NEARA’s most faithful patron and continues to use resources and collections available at the branch of the Arkansas State Archives. She is also a member of the Black Rock Cemetery Committee and has gleaned intimate knowledge of the cemetery’s history and many of the people buried there. As a member of the Lawrence County Historical Society (LCHS), she also deeply cares about local history and the people who have lived in the community at large.

For more information on collections at the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, contact Archival Manager Fatme Myuhtar-May at or at 870-878-6521. NEARA is currently open Monday through Friday on an appointment-only basis.