At night in dreams he sees their souls rise
Like dark geese into the Oklahoma skies
Well this is a prayer for the souls of the departed
Down an old dirt road in Okfuskee County is a gravel turn-out that bends in a half circle right by a stand of trees. Underneath them is a glorious patch of giant clovers. In shade the clovers are emerald and shamrock. In sun, pear and lime.
This is where Laura and L.D. Nelson were buried. The 27-year-old mother and her 12-year-old son were lynched just west of Okemah, Oklahoma, on May 25, 1911. Nobody claimed their bodies and they were laid to rest in unmarked graves in Greenleaf Cemetery.
I can’t believe they lynched a child.
I went to Greenleaf because for the last year or so I’ve been thinking of launching a crowdsource funding campaign to raise money for tombstones to help venerate the mother and son. But, after making the trek to the cemetery, I realized Laura and L.D. are long gone. They are not in this remote graveyard. In fact, they were gone before their broken bones were folded into the earth. Gone long before the trees grew up and formed lace shadows. Gone, gone, gone, these immortal beloved souls.
The humble graveyard is located behind an old Indian Baptist Church, which sits on a small compound of six or seven dilapidated structures. There are no pretty arches or iron work here. No beautiful bent wire scrolling out the name: Greenleaf. Just graves in disarray and tombstones surrounded by faded fake flowers and weeds. Some grave sites have short houses with gabled roofs built over them. They’re called grave shelters or spirit houses and are a common cultural practice among Native Americans. Some graves are marked with sandstone rocks. Whatever names or epitaphs were carved into them were worn away decades ago by the Oklahoma sun and rain, wind and ice.
It’s spring in Oklahoma and the Blue-eyed grass and purple poppy mallows, also known as wine cups, have bloomed. The white clover, too. And, this field is one sad vintage, so remote that I feel like I’ve gone trespassing.
As I make my way back to Highway 56 and then Highway 48, and finally, Interstate 40, I feel the souls of the departed waving across the fields reminding me, reminding us, of the suffering that is all around us. The very rocks that form the earth cry out because men cannot.
There are people suffering today just as much as Laura and L.D. Nelson suffered. Realizing this helps me let them go, even as their bones whither in unmarked graves. They aren’t there and the graves don’t matter to them and never did. For the grave of God is empty and we have all been offered life, everlasting. Meanwhile, there are people all around us in need of hope and light, peace and prayer. The soul of Laura Nelson understands this and she cries out with the rocks, “Suffer the little children to come unto me…”