Fairmont woman named one of West Virginia's 2023 History Heroes

·5 min read

Feb. 23—FAIRMONT — Fairmont native Joni Morris has worked for close to 10 years to preserve and label local grave sites as her way of giving back to the community.

Thursday, at a ceremony in Charleston, Morris will be named one of West Virginia's 2023 History Heroes. She was nominated by the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia for her work with the Preserve WV AmeriCorps Program and West Virginia University.

Over the past year, she served at the West Virginia and Regional History Center where she digitized and cataloged files for the Emory Kemp and Kemp Industrial Archaeology Collections. Over the summer, she went to several flooded historic Kentucky schools to help them preserve and archive documents and donated nearly $1,000 in supplies she received from stores around the area.

She has been working with the Maple Grove Cemetery, the oldest in the area, to clean and document graves — some of which are as old as the late 1700's — and remove leaves and debris from the cemetery. She has also hosted and taught Find-A-Grave workshops, for which she developed the course.

Her AmeriCorps service term ended on Dec. 31, 2022, but Morris will continue to work with Find-A-Grave and BillionGraves, which are apps that have maps of cemeteries around the world that are labeled with a photograph and GPS coordinate. Users are able to view recorded gravesites around the world and add their own photos and coordinates to sites in need. She serves as caretaker of several cemeteries throughout North Central West Virginia. Morris will also continue working with Preservation Alliance to teach Find-A-Grave workshops.

At Maple Grove Cemetery, Morris has marked close to 150 graves and has relabeled and verified the exact location of at least five veterans' graves. She recalled one instance where she was able to contact a family from Tennessee to let them know she had found the gravesite for their family member who served in the Civil War.

"That was pretty cool that I was able to actually verify that they were buried in Maple Grove Cemetery... For somebody like me, that does genealogy and family histories, those are so important because, you know, our cemeteries are deteriorating ...The best way to preserve them is to take a picture of them. The only way that you're going to save those stones for posterity for, you know, eternity is to actually be able to photograph them and get the information off of them," Morris said.

Morris frequently visits small, family graves, often in the middle of nowhere to photograph and label undocumented sights for anyone who might want to see them.

"I don't want any recognition for that, I'm doing it because there might be somebody from that lives in California and wants to see their family members grave in West Virginia...So, it's just a passion, I guess," Morris said.

When Morris visited Kentucky, after areas of the state were devastated by flooding last year, she brought donated items such as shovels, hammers and other related items to help with cleanup.

"The devastation was just unbelievable. They said, the creek behind the Hindman Settlement School, where I visited is usually only eight inches deep, but they strung a rope across the creek to the floodline and it measured almost 30 feet off of the creek bed. It was unreal," Morris said.

West Virginia Preservation Alliance Preservation Manager Jamie Billman has worked with Morris on several projects over the years and said she definitely deserves the award.

"I was very excited to see that she got selected because I truly believe she is deserving of this award. Her whole life has been dedicated to preserving history of her hometown. Now she's specifically working to preserve cemeteries, especially as it pertains to veteran graves, which I think are in much need of documentation in our state," Billman said.

Billman said Morris' digitalization project took a significant amount of hard-work, several years to complete, and a dissertation.

"I think some people take it for granted. It's not easy. It's not fast work either," Billman said about Morris' work at the West Virginia and Regional History Center. "So that was quite a feat on her part, but then also the amount of graves she was able to document and continue to document. She stops at random cemeteries along the sides of the road when she sees them, just for their preservation, which is something I think super admirable...Her best features and her best accomplishments are just the work she's put into to some of these projects."

West Virginia History Heroes are nominated by genealogical, historical, preservation, museum or patriotic organizations from across the state. The purpose of the program is to give state-level recognition to individuals who have chosen to dedicate service on behalf on an organization's programs. The West Virginia Hero award is a one-time only recognition.

Morris said she was surprised to be recognized and excited to attend the History Hero award program, which is held annually at the Culture Center in Charleston. She has attended the West Virginia History Day events when she served as Director of the Marion County Historical Society Museum, but she said she's excited to be an award recipient this year.

The 2023 West Virginia History Day History Heroes award ceremony will be held on February 23. The History Heroes award ceremony will begin at 9:30 a.m. in the State Theater at the Culture Center and will conclude before 11 a.m.

Reach me at sshriver@timeswv.com or 304-367-2549.