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81-Year-Old Archer Native Voluntarily Maintains Historically Black Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery

Roberta Lopez is a family woman. At 81 years old, she not only cares for the living but also the dead.

Lopez devotes her time maintaining the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery in Archer. At the cemetery, she can often be found collecting tree limbs, breaking them with her bare hands and throwing them in a large black trash can. They land with a big thud.

She does this to clean the cemetery – one with family ties.

“They’re all here,” she said.

She has located her aunt, cousins, grandparents, great grandparents and great-great-grandparents.

Lopez is part of the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Restoration Organization. Its goal is to restore the historically black cemetery that has people from the 1800s and 1900s. The organization was started in 2000 by her sister Clyde Williams, she said.

“At that time, (the cemetery) was nothing but little, fine trees all over the place,” Lopez said.

Williams started by cutting down a lot of the small trees to clear the area, Lopez said. Williams continued her work until she was no longer able to. She is currently 95.

“I stepped in in 2018 to try to carry out her goals,” Lopez said.

Lopez began by organizing cleanups to maintain the cemetery.

Keep Alachua County Beautiful Executive Director Gina Hawkins helps recruit volunteers for the cleanups.

“(Lopez) is out there,” Hawkins said. “She’s got her boots, her gloves – she’s ready to go.”

Lopez inspires people with her willingness to work hard despite her age, Hawkins said.

Keep Alachua County Beautiful not only helps by bringing in volunteers, the organization also stepped in to write a $20,000 resiliency grant after Hurricane Irma damaged the area, Hawkins said.

“There’s nothing we can do about nature,” Lopez said. “You know, what the good Lord is doing up there.”

The cemetery was in bad shape after the hurricane, Lopez said. Trees needed to be cut down, and the area had to be cleaned up.

Hawkins described Lopez’s enthusiasm for the project and willingness to chip in. She believes Lopez’s attitude brings out the best in people – including herself.

“It makes me want to work harder,” Hawkins said. “It makes me want to help her.”

Lopez said the hardship of her work is the cleaning and recruiting volunteers. “The other hardship is making sure we can raise enough money in order to achieve our goals,” Lopez said.

Some goals include maintaining a clean cemetery, restoring gravestones and fencing in the place. With the help of Duke Energy, Lopez and the organization are one step closer to reaching their dreams.

Duke Energy provided a $5,000 grant in Nov. 2019 to restore 50 of the 100 gravestones in the cemetery, said Dorothy Pernu, Duke Energy government and community relations manager.

Duke Energy also helped organize a cleanup on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Pernu said.

During this event, Lopez found her grandmother – the person she was named after.

“I just fell on my knees and started crying,” Lopez said.

She was overwhelmed and overjoyed to have found her grandmother. She had known her grandmother was buried in the cemetery, but it wasn’t until volunteers found a silver plaque with her grandmother’s name on it that she knew where.

The volunteer organization is working to identify more people as some gravestones are unrecognizable.

Duke Energy’s relationship with Lopez is not over, Pernu said. The company will continue to assist Lopez as needed.

Although she’s grateful for the $5,000 grant, it’s not enough, Lopez said.

“You just have to keep doing it – that’s the hardship,” Lopez said.

By this, she means the difficulty of working on a never-ending project. Another issue Lopez faces is the old age of the people in charge of the organization.

“They’re not children,” she said. “They aren’t in their 20s or 30s.”

Instead, the people on the board are in their late 60s and 70s, she said. It’s worrisome when it comes to keeping the legacy moving forward.

“We’re looking to try to bring in younger people so they can carry this on and on over the years when we’re dead and gone,” Lopez said.

Lopez encourages anyone interested – no matter where they live – to get involved.

Despite not having younger replacements, Lopez is confident about the cemetery’s future.

“I see (the cemetery) as being a historical site. I see it as being on the Archer Historical Trail,” she said. “And I see it as being preserved as one of the oldest cemeteries in the state of Florida.”

Meleah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.