Local Black Cemetery on its Road to Rebirth
Plan in place to document history, clean up graves, propose city park
By AMY RITCHART
This article reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
Volunteers are working to establish a place where people can stroll and contemplate the history of black men and women in Clarksville. If the project succeeds, it would breathe new life into an abandoned seven-acre cemetery near Cumberland Drive.
Mount Olive Cemetery, located between Rollins and Beverly Hills drives, contains more than 1,000 graves of black Clarksvillians. There are headstones for both Confederate and Union soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops. Also buried there are a World War II veteran and a black "Mammy."
"We're starting a small committee to encourage the city to take (our) donation of the land where the cemetery is. My main concern is to save the cemetery," said Geneva Bell, a member of the Save Mount Olive Cemetery Committee. Several forces are coming together to create this new space, including historic preservationists, a nearby landowner, the city Parks Department, grant proposals and the manpower of scores of volunteers.
Volunteer Cleaning Power
Committee members estimate cleaning up and preserving Mount Olive Cemetery will take thousands of volunteer hours. The committee, with Benevolent Lodge Order No. 210 spearheading organizational efforts, wants to form a council to involve other predominantly black nonprofit organizations in cemetery cleanup. The lodge already maintains the Benevolent Lodge Cemetery, located a few miles from Interstate 24's Exit 11.
New information would routinely be added to the cemetery history as it is discovered.
"It's never complete. There's always different information," said Riverview Cemetery Director David Carpenter. "Being here 27 years, you can expect me to have a kind heart for all cemeteries ... and I see what's there. It would be slow. This is like an archaeological find."
Documentation would coincide with restoration, and the committee will have to be deliberate with its efforts. "You're not talking about something that can just be cleared off. It'll have to be documented as it's done. You've got to preserve what is lying there. You can actually destroy some of your own history by moving too fast," he said.
Committee members plan to ask the city to accept donation of the cemetery and a nearby property to establish a park.
As first steps, committee members are circulating a petition to muster support and have asked to speak at the Feb. 17 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Committee. They then plan to ask the council's Finance and Administration Committee to consider accepting donation of the land.
Landowner Robert Davis said he has wanted to donate the land for some time, but he wants to be sure it will be properly maintained. "I'm really more interested that the graves are looked after," he said. "They're a continuing corporation and if there are any extra lots ... (people) could be buried there."
City Grants Manager Ron McClurg has been working with committee members on the project. "I thought maybe there are some ... uses for that property Mr. Davis wants to give to the city," he said.
Volunteers hope the combined historical and social value of the cemetery, paired with the park, will make the idea appealing to City Council members.
"I don't think just because there's archaeological, historical and social significance would make (the council) interested in taking the land -- seven acres of overgrown, uncared for property," McClurg said.
"(A park) makes it a package, along with showing a long-term community commitment (to the cleanup)."
Committee members have researched the history of the cemetery and those buried there, and they contacted State Archaeologist G.F. Fielder for an opinion on the value of the site. "We want to be able to show ... it's not just our cemetery," Bell said. "It's the city's history."
Fielder visited Mount Olive to gauge its boundaries and estimate the number of graves. "This is one of the largest cemeteries I've seen," he said. "I usually find (cemeteries) when the bulldozers have gotten to them. It's really great to find one people want to preserve."
Fielder said the cemetery's entrance was likely on Rollins Drive. A path through the cemetery was likely a road used by visitors and the undertaker to bring coffins by wagon for burial.
Fielder and McClurg are also looking into getting the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.
McClurg said the park could become a place to chronicle the history of Civil War soldiers and the military units represented in the cemetery. "There's really no place for people to walk and think about those things," he said.
McClurg is investigating whether grant money could be used to pay for cleaning up the cemetery.
He said both state and federal grants are possible, but private foundations might also be a leading resource.
Folia Harris, an 85-year-old Nashville woman born and raised in Montgomery County, has hoped for years the cemetery would be restored.
She can't remember when the cemetery was named Mount Olive, and said it was originally known only for its purpose. "It started as the old African cemetery. The stones out there were very primitive," said Harris, who has four relatives, including her grandmother and aunt, buried there. "I picked up it might be just for slaves right after slavery."
As stones were added, many of them were more elaborate and artistic. Harris said her grandmother's headstone, which was donated, was beautiful.
Foston Funeral Home director Larry Meriwether, who has buried clients at Mount Olive, said many people believe the cemetery contains graves of slaves. "It was called the slave cemetery at one time," he said.
Golden Hill Cemetery owner Wiley Moore remembers his elders speaking of Mount Olive Cemetery when he was younger. "Not too much information is said about it (now), except for the oldest people around," he said.
Amy Ritchart can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Originally published in the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle, Thursday, February 5, 2004
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.