Cemeteries, graveyards and memorials are visual reminders of our public memory of the enslaved. They exist because our ancestors desired to memorialize those buried there.
Unfortunately, many historic African American cemeteries have been forgotten; some of them paved over, others taken over by developers. It’s up to us to save the ones that remain. By visiting and honoring the sacred places of our ancestors, who were enslaved and freed to survive mostly on their own, we give humanity and dignity to their memory.
This morning, our AAHGS Nashville Chapter hosted a moving and insightful set of presentations and discussions about saving historic African American cemeteries. We were honored to hear presentations from Zada Law, Leigh Ann Gardner, Mike Taliento, and Phyliss Smith.
Zada Law shared about the Places, Perspectives project to document African American community building in Tennessee. The project locates, researches, maps, and tells the stories of churches, schools and cemeteries in post-emancipation rural communities in Tennessee. Zada described work to document and geographically map African American cemeteries in 4 sample counties across the state – Greene, Maury, Fayette, and Hardeman counties. You can explore the current Places, Perspectives site at https://digital.mtsu.edu/digital/collection/p15838coll17 and a formal site with more in-depth cemetery information will launch this summer on the website of the Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University.
Leigh Ann Gardner has been researching cemeteries established through fraternal organizations and benevolent societies for 12 years. She’s documented her findings in her new book, To Care for the Sick and Bury the Dead (available through Vanderbilt University Press). In her presentation, Leigh Ann described the importance of lodges for the African American community, sharing an excerpt from her book about a Knights of Pythias Thanksgiving celebration in 1909. While these organizations thrived between 1865 and 1930, through the cemeteries they established, their legacy continues. Mount Ararat, one of Nashville’s oldest African American cemeteries, is but one example – having been established by a benevolent society.
Our meeting closed with a presentation Mike Taliento & Phyliss Smith -both are members of the Mount Olive Cemetery Preservation Society and shared the progress made over the past 18 years to preserve and document the Mount Olive Cemetery. Mike shard the mission of the society, history about the cemetery, described the extensive community involvement and support, and showed many pictures documenting the restoration and preservation efforts. Phyliss gave many details about the work she leads to research the lives of those buried in the cemetery and ensuring their stories are told. Another addition to the remarkable work that’s happening, the society is having a ceremony on Saturday, June 18th for the official unveiling of their U.S. Colored Troops Monument. https://www.facebook.com/mtolivechps/.
We thank all of our presenters and attendees today!
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