Digging up tombstones, stories in Oakland Cemetery

LITTLE ROCK (KATV) - Jan Davenport and Oakland Sexton John Rains roam the cemetery not as wandering spirits but with purpose always listening, prodding and searching until they find something they didn't even know existed, something buried for a century.

"Just rock, if we hit something that feels really solid then we go in a circle pattern around it. You have to be real careful because these stones are really really soft," cautioned Rains.

Jan and John have found more than 300 graves in this cemetery. The stones covered over the years by weather or vandalism. They believe there could be thousands.

"We think some of them in the area down there are so deep that we probably won't be able to find them. We hope we will. I have an ancestor down there somewhere I haven't found. That's what started this whole hunt," said Davenport.

Jan's one-month grant project has stretched into years.

"She took me one day and said, 'C'mon, John. Let's go see if we can find some more headstones of people I know who are buried here, and they've got to have a headstone. So, we started there ,and it expanded from that," recalled Rains.

Each find is a new story for Davenport to dig up.

"I like stories, and I want people to know it's more thank just names and dates. It's the stories and the lives and the culture behind these people and the culture that they live in. It's just fun. My husband says I'm obsessed, and I am," said Davenport.

She's found children, lawmakers and Civil War soldiers.

"It said that he was erected by his brother J.M. Smith, and I wanted to find out who they were, and I did," said Davenport of one of their finds. "They both were attorneys and they were both in the Union Army, and they moved down here and the brother died and he is the only one buried on this lot because his brother moved to Saline County and became a representative, an Arkansas State Representative."

A hundred years can do some damage. Often the grave markers must be repaired. Rains cements and cleans them in his shop, but repairs can be pricey. To offset the expense, Davenport plans to give tours of Oakland Cemetery and tell the tales of what they've uncovered, because this is about more than digging up's about digging up Arkansas history.

"It's a mystery. It's an adventure, but most of all it's giving these people back their identity," said Davenport.

So far, they're only a tenth of the way through the grounds, so there are many more mysteries to uncover. If you'd like to take one of those tours, the very first one will be led by Davenport on November 2 at 5 p.m.