For Crystal Madaris, walking through Mary E. Smith Memorial Cemetery in Elsmere, Ky., is like visiting with old friends and loved ones. Four generations of her family are buried there.
"When I go through the cemetery, it's like walking through my old neighborhood and that makes it special to me," says Madaris, who serves as the cemetery's secretary. "I think everybody feels that way, that we all have loved ones and friends ... resting there. It's like a future home, so to speak. A future neighborhood and it makes it special to us."
Someone vandalized that special neighborhood earlier this month, sometime after Dec. 3. Police report approximately 30 headstones were toppled and some were defaced with spray-painted anarchist symbols, including a capital A in a circle, and other foul language. The vandals also marked the cemetery's entrance sign. No witnesses have come forward and police say they haven't found any video footage.
"The use of anarchist symbols in connection with vandalism in a historic Black cemetery doesn't really make sense," says Matt Dowling, Elsmere city administrator. "Most anarchists usually are not racists, but instead believe in social equality and have a distrust of wealth, privilege and government."
City officials say that incongruity suggests the vandalism was likely done by kids. However, that doesn't excuse the actions or make the crimes any less serious.
"Regardless of whether this crime was perpetrated by a juvenile, anarchist or racist, it has no place in the city of Elsmere," says Mayor Marty Lenof in a statement. "Our city has a long history as one of the most diverse communities in Northern Kentucky and this criminal act is not just an affront to people of color or those who have loved ones buried in this cemetery but to all people who live in our city."
Madaris says her heart starts beating fast when she thinks about the damage at Mary E. Smith Memorial Cemetery.
"We all have loved ones resting in sacred ground and that was a sacrilege to that place," she says. "I felt like it was a vicious act of cowardliness that occurred. It was just something ... unspeakable. It's hard to speak about."
The cemetery was founded in 1950 when a nearby cemetery was filled, and is one of Northern Kentucky's first African American cemeteries. It is an active cemetery, serving people across the Tri-State, with some coming back "home" for burial after moving away, Madaris says. It's run by a volunteer board of directors.
Cemetery leaders are waiting for a final police report and to hear from their insurance company so they can begin cleaning up the mess and making repairs. They're also reaching out to Duke Energy about adding more streetlights near the cemetery.
Mary E. Smith Memorial Cemetery isn't the first historically Black cemetery to deal with vandalism. Burial grounds in Cincinnati have seen similar destruction in recent years.
"It's so devastating and heartbreaking to think that these occurrences are becoming so very commonplace," Madaris says with a sigh. "I don't know whether to blame it on a political climate or ... I don't want to think that people are just that mean. I really don't know how to classify it but I do think that it's targeted and that there needs to be something done, not only for the cemetery's sake but for each of us who are walking around each and every day.
"We need to be better to each other."
Anyone with information can call the Elsmere Police Department at 859-342-7344.