“A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.” -Saint Basil
People think of cemeteries as places of sadness and mourning. Some may even avoid setting foot in one, knowing what they represent. However, for Marvin Harris, Woodland Cemetery was not a place of sadness but rather, great honor and celebration.
Woodland’s story started in 1918 when it was founded by civil rights activist John Mitchell Jr. It is a historic African American cemetery that houses tennis legend Arthur Ashe, Reverend John Jasper, and many other local heroes. Unfortunately, after years of neglect, Woodland fell into despair and became un-walkable and overgrown. Even though it is the resting place of about 30,000 people, most of the headstones were obscured and prevented people from paying respect to their loved ones.
For Martin Harris, that was unacceptable. “A lot of those people had laid the groundwork, the foundation, to make it a little bit easier for me to get that education, to get that decent job, to pursue the things that I wanted to do. I just wanted to bring that respect back to them.” Harris founded the Woodland Restoration Foundation, acquired Woodland, and got to work.
He rounded up about 900 volunteers, including George Nixon, to help with the clean-up and restoration effort. Before they could even identify the headstones, Harris and the volunteers had to reclaim the land from briars, brush, and overgrown trees. Although Harris is the brains behind the operation, he credits Nixon for making it possible.
Nixon is a 79-year-old retired therapist inspired by the lives of the people resting at Woodland. “My commitment was to give back to folks who had been shortchanged in so many ways, and they deserve better. So, I decided to volunteer.” Nixon isn’t sure how much longer his age will allow him to volunteer. But for now, he is happy to be alongside Harris doing a kindness to people who are long gone but – thanks to people like Harris and Nixon – won’t be forgotten.
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