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Cove Haven Cemetery historian shares findings about iconic Black figures

In 1907, 14 formerly enslaved men founded Cove Haven; the cemetery was originally named Greenwood, but the name was changed when it was filed as a non-profit.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Cove Haven is a 16-acre library.

That’s how Yvonne Giles, the cemetery’s burial manager and historian, describes it.

Cove Haven, located in Lexington, is filled with icons who made a huge impact in history, not just in the city, but throughout Kentucky and the country.

“We’re standing in the library- in the archive repository,” Giles said.

In 1907, 14 formerly enslaved men founded Cove Haven; the cemetery was originally named Greenwood, but the name was changed in 1985 when it was filed as a non-profit organization.

Giles said she didn’t learn this history in school. She had to teach herself. 

“What I have learned is just so much richer just by working in the cemetery,” Giles said.

She’s been Cove Haven’s burial manager since 2018, but her deep dive into Lexington’s rich history began in 2000.

Credit: Bobbi McSwine/WHAS-TV
Yvonne Giles walking in Cove Haven Cemetery.

“I went in there to find my family – 42 of them,” Giles said laughing. “And as I studied the names of the people that showed up on the headstones, I said, ‘Wait a minute, I know that name! He’s so and so and so and so!’ So, I started researching all names, just as if they were my family.”

Giles hasn’t looked back since.

She scratched the surface and shared the impact of a few of the thousands buried at Cove Have, including William Henry Ballard.

Credit: Notable KY African American Database
William Henry Ballard

“He was the first Black pharmacist in Kentucky,” Giles explained.

According the the Notable Kentucky African American Database, Ballard established 'Ballard's Pharmacy' in 1893. Before coming to Lexington at 17-years-old, he lived in Louisville where he graduated from a public school. He was also a founder of Cove Haven, serving as its first president.

Another buried at Cove Haven is Dr. Mary Britton. She was Lexington’s first Black female doctor, a journalist and activist.

“[She was] very prolific in her writing in support of women and children,” Giles said.

Credit: Notable KY African American Database
Dr. Mary Britton

The database says Britton wrote several articles against segregation laws. She also founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home.

The cemetery is also home to Dr. Thomas Wendell; Giles said he worked at Eastern State Hospital in Lexington for the mentally ill and fought for the rights of Black patients.

Credit: KY Commission on Human Rights
Dr. Thomas Wendell

According to the database, Wendell retired in 1952, and when the hospital completed the new building for Black patients in 1953, it was named in his honor.

She also mentioned Henry Tandy who, with his business partner, Albert Byrd, formed a construction company. They built several buildings in downtown Lexington, including the old courthouse.

“They became the premier construction company in Kentucky,” Giles said.

Credit: Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation
Henry Tandy

In 2020, activists were successful in pushing the effort to change the name 'Cheapside Park' to 'Henry Tandy Park.' The space is right beside the old courthouse and was used as a slave-trading auction. The name change amplifies the significant work Tandy did in Lexington.

The database also lists Tandy as a founder of Cove Haven.

There’s also William Perkins, a skilled horse trainer who led his younger brother to win the Kentucky Derby.

“James ‘Soup’ Perkins at the age of 15 won the Kentucky Derby in 1895,” Giles said.

The database reports that over William Perkins' 16-year career, he had 665 winning horses.

And those family members Giles set out to find more than 20 years ago? Well, she found them and learned one of her relatives, Jordan Jackson, was a co-founder of Cove Haven.

Credit: Bobbi McSwine/WHAS-TV
Memorial of co-founders for Cove Haven Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky.

“And his family, for three generations, were managers of the cemetery itself,” Giles said.

The database reports Jackson was the editor of the 'American Citizen' newspaper and he was the first African American undertaker in Lexington.

It was a full-circle moment.

“I feel the connection to this cemetery,” Giles said. “They sacrificed a lot to achieve, and I can honor them by continuing that contribution.”

It’s a contribution that was made 115 years ago - one she hopes never fades.

Giles said you can help keep that legacy going by volunteering. Cove Haven is privately owned, so she can use all the help she can to keep it beautiful; one thing Giles said can help is to not leave plastic items at burial sites. She also pointed out several overturned tombstones that need maintenance.

If you'd like to volunteer, contact Giles.

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