The Sugar Creek Township community in rural Boone County was once a thriving and free community for Black Southerners who had moved north in the early 1850s. Today, all that remains of that community is a small cemetery on the outskirts of Thorntown, Indiana.
While he was still in high school, O’Neill Public Safety Management major Reece Thompson read an article in the Lebanon newspaper about the town’s only Black cemetery. It was on a plot of land originally purchased by the Quaker community and given to the town’s Black residents to use as a burial site. At the time, Black people were not allowed to be buried within town limits.
Through the article, Thompson learned the cemetery had fallen into disrepair.
“It’s the only African American history left in Thorntown and is believed to be one of the less than 10 African American cemeteries remaining in Indiana,” he explains. “I think that’s a pretty important thing. That community helped build the town. People often don’t recognize their own town’s history, but the early Black pioneers and this cemetery are a giant piece of Thorntown’s past.”
Thompson earned his Eagle Scout rank in 2017 after completing what was to become the first phase of the cemetery restoration project. In Scouting, the Eagle Scout Service Project is an opportunity for a Scout to demonstrate leadership by performing a project that makes a difference in their community. It serves as a culminating project to wrap up their time in Scouts.
In 2016, Thompson used his Eagle Project to raise $1,750 to restore the cemetery. He met with local leaders and formed a committee to help properly restore the grounds. He had previous experience restoring cemeteries but wanted to take this project a step further. Thompson would end up investing three years into his Eagle Project.
During the first phase, he began by cleaning, restoring, and repairing what was already there. Although he completed enough to earn his Eagle Scout rank in that first phase, the cemetery needed to be surveyed so a fence could be constructed protecting those buried there. In the second phase of the project, Thompson authored an Indiana Historical Society Heritage Grant that was awarded an additional $18,200. All told, he ended up raising $19,950 for the project.
Partnering with outside groups, Thompson used ground-penetrating radar to search for potentially unmarked graves. All told, they found between 46 and 49 people buried in the cemetery, including at least one U.S. Civil War veteran.
“This was an entire community, a group of people, in Thorntown,” he says. “Before we started this work, most people in predominantly white Thorntown would have no idea that this cemetery existed or that Black people had ever lived there.”
In 2017, he worked to ensure the site would be marked by a blue Indiana Heritage sign. During the next two years, he focused on preserving and protecting the history of the location and its people by partnering with organizations and historians to learn more about the Sugar Creek community.
Together, they added a wrought iron fence to protect the open space and in 2019, they added the Indiana Historical Marker that now stands at the site and provides a brief history of the Sugar Creek Community. He even created a website about his Eagle project, with more information on the cemetery and those who are buried there.
Thompson says, in the beginning, people dismissed what he was doing as a weekend project to earn my Eagle rank. But as the project gained attention from news outlets and statewide organizations, the reaction to his work has changed.
“There’s been a lot more attention on this than I ever thought there would be,” he says. “It’s not common for an Eagle Scout project. When I started this project in 2016, I could never have expected it to come this far.”
Just last year, he received Indiana Landmarks’ 2020 Sandi Servaas Memorial Award as well as the Outstanding Collaborative Project for 2020 from the Indiana Historical Society.
And while Thompson says he’s honored to receive those accolades, he says the real reward has been meeting the families of the people buried in the cemetery he helped restore.
“We could tell there were still family members who visited because when we first started the restoration, we’d see coins on some of the headstones,” he says. “One was from 2015 so we knew we weren’t too far off from when people had last visited the Civil War veteran.”
The families, while mostly dispersed to neighboring communities had been visiting their loved ones.
“The people visiting these gravesites are visiting their grandparents, great grandparents, and other relatives,” he explains.
That’s why he and his partners felt it was critical to track down those families and invite them to a ceremony to unveil the historical marker. On August 10, 2019, more than 50 people gathered to celebrate the completion of the restoration and dedication of the Indiana Historical Marker.
“Their reaction made everything worth it,” he admits. “When we did the unveiling and they attended, they wanted to tell me the history. They wanted to talk about their relatives and what this meant to them. That was the best part of the project.”