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Calvary Cemetery: A family business that carries on

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Formerly the Saffell Cemetery and a part of Saffell Funeral Home, the Saffells ensured that their cemetery would continue on well past their family’s name.

By Todd Martin

For nearly 100 years, Calvary Cemetery just north of the railroad tracks on 7th Street in Shelbyville, has been the final resting place of more than 1,000 African-Americans.

Dozens of notable African-American residents are buried in the cemetery, including T.S. Baxter, Shelbyville’s first black city council member.

George W. Saffell Jr. originally started the cemetery, which is now an incorporated business, after his first wife, Daisy Saffell, died in 1918.

By that time, Saffell had accumulated about 30 acres just north of the city on 7th Street, where the cemetery still stands today.

A good portion of the property, about 21 acres, is in a flood plain and unsuitable for cemetery, so it is leased for farmland, according to Willie Fleming – a Shelbyville resident with a law practice in Louisville who is a member of the cemetery’s board.

Fleming and the rest of the board – Gregory Tinsley, Greg Tinsley Jr., Valoise Orange and Inez Harris – took over the cemetery around 2002-03, he said.

“Just prior to Mrs. [Mildred] Saffell’s death, she allowed the board to be formed and property transferred to the board so it could continue to operate,” Fleming said.

George Saffell married Mildred Stone in 1939, and he died in 1953.

Mildred Saffell attended the Melton Mortuary School after marring George Saffell and continued to run the business, which included the Saffell Funeral Home, after his death.

“Back around 1988, Mrs. Saffell started to go blind, and with the help of Shannon’s [Funeral Home], Ross Webb and another funeral home in Louisville, she was able to continue to run the business, but it was very difficult,” Fleming said. “In the late nineties, she finally let the funeral home close and moved into a nursing home.

“It was just too much for her to do alone, and she couldn’t get anyone to lease or operate the business.”

But through the corporation, the Saffell’s commitment to the black community in Shelbyville will carry on.

Once named Saffell Cemetery, Fleming said the roughly 9-acre plot has an estimated 1,400 to 1,500 grave sites, and it has plenty of room to grow.

The foundation purchased about 3 acres of property in front of the cemetery that used to house the Big Shelby Tobacco Warehouse.

“We purchased that so we could have a clear path into the cemetery, and so we have room for expansion,” he said.

The foundation has also been in conversation with Shelbyville/Shelby County Parks and Recreation about a portion of the flood plain area being used for the park’s Clear Creek Greenway Trail.

The foundation also purchased the city’s oldest cemetery, located just east of 7th Street.

“The historical society put up a sign marking it as Cemetery Number 1, and there is a red gate marking the entrance,” Fleming said. “When the board that originally took care of it couldn’t manage it anymore, the city took it over but they didn’t really want to manage it. So we received a matching five thousand dollar grant from the state, and we used it to purchase the property and maintain it.”

Fleming said his group isn’t certain who is buried in there or even how many gravesites are in the cemetery.

“It was started in the early eighteen hundreds, and the last burial was in 1936, but a lot of the gravestones are just creek rocks that were turned up and there is no writing,” he said. “And there are very few gravestones or markers left. We have a list of about thirty or forty names, but we know very little about them.”

Fleming said there is no worry about the future of the Calvary Cemetery.

“The board will continue to operate, and as we leave, new members will be appointed,” he said.

And with room to grow, Calvary Cemetery will continue to be an historical marker for Shelbyville.