Ridges grave black veteran

In a ceremony Monday afternoon at Ridges Cemetery No. 2, a wreath is placed on the grave of World War I veteran John M. Martin, who served in an all-black infantry unit during the war. 

The annual ritual honoring veterans and others buried on The Ridges, after spending parts of their lives as patients in the old Athens Asylum, took place the afternoon of Memorial Day earlier this week.

According to a news release about the event, the Athens chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosted the event at Ridges Cemetery 2 “in an effort to break the stigma of mental illness and to honor veterans and civilians who suffered from the emotional wounds of war and other of life’s hardships.”

During the event, wreaths were placed and eulogies read in honor of two patients, John Spencer and WWI veteran John Martin, who both died at the Athens Lunatic Asylum, as it was then known. 

Among other things, the ceremony included an introduction by Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, a 21-gun salute, retiring of the flag, taps by Caroline Cade, and a song sung by Tasha Attaway.

According to the eulogy for John M. Martin, he served as a private in World War 1, with the abbreviated “col” usually set in parentheses after his name, for “colored” or African American.

Martin of Portsmouth, Ohio, served with company F. 813 of the “Pioneer Infantry,” an all-black unit that served in Europe from late 1918 to early 1919 doing the grizzly work of identifying and packaging bodies and body parts to be buried abroad or sent home.

“We don’t know why Private Martin eventually became a patient in the Athens Lunatic Asylum,” the eulogy continued. “Certainly his gruesome war experience, though not on the battlefield, had been traumatic. Did he suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the likely ailment of so many other veterans in the three Ridges Cemeteries? We’ll never know. 

“What we do know is that Private Martin was a patriot who served his country in spite of the second-class citizenship that was his lot in life. Today we give him the belated recognition he has long deserved,” the eulogy concluded.

The other man honored, Joseph Edward Spencer, according to the eulogy read at the ceremony, was not a military veteran. Rather he spent much of his life at the old Athens Asylum for a mental illness. He died and was buried in Cemetery 2 in 1931. During his life, Spencer, a brick mason and hauler of coal and ice, was committed to the Asylum twice, each time after an arrest. The first arrest followed an attack of paranoia and other disturbing behavior, and the second time, less than a year later, for similar reasons along with society being concerned that he posed a threat to the community.

Neither arrest or commitment involved a crime, and Spencer spent the last 23 years of his life in the Athens Asylum, according to the eulogy.

Great granddaughter Jenny Hughes contributed to Spencer’s eulogy by writing, “Today, John would have been most likely diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given medication and he could have continued to live a productive life. ‘Mental illness is not new in our family. It runs like a quiet, underground brush fire through the generations’ (quote by banjoist and composer Jayme Stone). But each generation can combat the stigma surrounding the illness and pave the way for the future generations who will need their compassion and understanding if they find themselves with a mental illness.”

In 2003, Jenny Hughes testified in Columbus for Ohio House Bill 398, which would bring into law the release of the names of the numbered graves at The Ridges. Additionally, she and her husband, Bill, were photographers in the Athens Photographic Project from its beginning, which was founded by recently deceased Elise Sanford. The couple stayed on as aides, working for a decade with peer photographers.

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