Preserving Kentucky African American roots with Yvonne Giles

Yvonne Giles, fondly known as the “cemetery lady” to many, is one of the city’s leaders in the effort to preserve African American history in Lexington. A Lexington native, Giles became the first black woman elected to the La Grange City Council in 1986 and was then reelected in 1987. After her time serving on City Council, Giles’ career evolved into uncovering and telling the stories of Kentucky African Americans. 

Giles was inspired to become a historian after she was asked by Anne Butler, a renowned African American and Kentucky historian, to join a research project. Bulter devoted her life to preserving local and national African American history and contributions.

“Working with Dr. Butler ignited a spark in my life and has fueled the work I do now in Lexington’s African-American community,” Giles said.

In 2009, Giles began a two-year project with Cove Haven Cemetery where she surveyed all the headstones. Established in 1907, Cove Haven is an African American cemetery in Lexington that is devoted to maintaining the history of the people who are buried there. In 2018, the long-term manager of Cove Haven passed away and Giles was asked to take over. She originally signed on to be responsible for burials and monument locations, but her job now extends to far more.

“African-American cemeteries are where you will find our history; it has not been researched or told. We have uncovered a wealth of information and are constantly sharing it with the Lexington community,” Giles said. “These former enslaved people became leaders, entrepreneurs, business owners, property owners and voters. That history is there; it just needs a spotlight to shine.”

An important part of sharing this history is ensuring Cove Haven has visual appeal. “If the cemetery is not inviting to people, then it will be much more difficult to share the incredible history of these African Americans,” Giles said. “We need to keep the landscape clean and show we care about their loved ones buried there.”

According to Giles, before she become Cove Haven’s manager the grounds needed some tender, loving care. “I knew the cemetery needed a makeover to encourage people to visit.” she said. The cemetery often receives help from volunteers like the recent College of Health Sciences team who organized a day of service to clean Cove Haven’s grounds.

Brian Noehren, PT, PhD, FACSM, an associate professor in the department of physical therapy, began organizing the day of service with Giles two months prior to the event in October 2019. “I was immediately moved by Yvonne’s love and care of the cemetery. I left the cemetery feeling determined to bring out a big crew and give our full effort in the same way we pursue our science,” Noehren said.

Noehren and several physical therapy students gathered on a crisp, fall day, ready to give Cove Haven the care it deserved. The group cleared the entire fence line, removed trees that had fallen on graves, cleaned headstones, and removed brush by the creek all in about three hours.

“This is one of my favorite and the most meaningful project I have been involved in since coming to UK,” Noehren said.

“The CHS day of service was such a blessing to Cove Haven. We’ve had so many positive comments,” Giles said. “I couldn’t believe how much work was accomplished. Everybody has talked about how great it looks; it really has made a difference this year.”

Giles plans on working at Cove Haven for many years to come while continuing to make improvements to the cemetery. “This cemetery really makes a difference in the lives of the families who have loved ones buried here. I plan on continuing this meaningful work for them,” she said.