One of the lost and forgotten cemeteries is maybe not so lost, but unfortunately becoming forgotten. The cemetery is famous but a search on Google maps reveals a simple word to describe this place: Graveyard. Upon further inspection, however, an entire world opens up. The cemetery is located in the small community of Oscar, Louisiana in Point Coupee Parish. Traveling down Louisiana Highway One, the road to the cemetery is barely visible. Once on the small, dirt road, it appears uninviting and you expect to see “No Trespassing” signs. The road is surrounded by sugarcane fields and about one mile down, a small tree covered area appears to the left. Inching closer, you can see the reflective white of the stones appearing through the trees. The cemetery appears taken care of and quite beautiful. Large oak trees shade most of the grounds and each are surrounded by beautiful, thick cast iron plants. Many of the sites look old and worn but several appear to have received a recent facelift. Some new, marble headstones sit next to the originals that were concrete and handwritten. The headstones speak of their owners as mothers, fathers, babies, soldiers, sports fans, and many other individualities. A particularly interesting headstone marks that of L. J. Johnson who died in 1924. The carved symbol above his name represents the Mosaic Templars of America (MTA). The MTA was founded in 1883 in Arkansas by two former slaves. For African Americans experiencing the Jim Crow South, times were tough and the MTA provided illness, death, and burial insurance to its members. The organization adopted its name from the Biblical story of Moses emancipating the Hebrew slaves. The local chapter name, number, and location are located at the bottom of the headstone.
One invisible disclosure within the cemetery of particular importance, is that the people buried there were either slaves or the descendants of slaves from Riverlake Plantation. The same house, built 200 years ago, still stands overlooking the cemetery. After emancipation, many former slaves stayed and worked on the grounds. Up until the 1980s, descendants still lived in the old slave quarters. They lived, they loved, they went to school, went to church, and still worked and lived on the property.
The cemetery’s most famous resident is that of Ernest J. Gaines, Louisiana’s own famous author who based most of his story’s setting and premise on Riverlake Plantation. Gaines is surrounded by many of his family and friends. His biggest fear was that the cemetery would disappear amongst the encroaching agriculture. He wanted to be buried there in hopes that his fame would draw attention to the place and those he was surrounded by were never forgotten. In the 1990s, Gaines and his wife created the Mount Zion Riverlake Cemetery Association in order to care for the cemetery. The association along with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Ernest J. Gaines Center hosted and successfully carried out a cleanup of the cemetery every year. Unfortunately, due to Gaines’ passing, other association board member deaths, and COVID-19, the last cleanup occurred in October of 2019 and there has been no mention of new cleanup dates.
Mount Zion Riverlake Cemetery is hugely important to Acadiana history. Instead of being labeled generically, it should be remembered as an open-air museum of African American slaves and their descendants who lived and left an indelible mark that should never be forgotten.