Hidden history among the trees

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, Powell

On Sunday I took a stroll from a friend’s house in Sterchi Hills, up Jim Sterchi Drive and hooked a right down Dante Road. Now, my mama didn’t raise a fool (despite some evidence to the contrary), so I continued walking in the grass until I came to the point of my destination near Dantedale Lane.

After checking to make sure traffic was clear, I darted across Dante to the edge of the woods that stretch northeast to Dry Gap Pike. I looked for the spot least overgrown with poison ivy and made my way into the trees. The first thing I noticed was the lack of extensive overgrowth under the canopy once the outer layer was breeched.

Grave of Willard Garrison

Dappled sunlight filtered down through the trees. On the opposite side of the woods near a house was a large patch of vinca minor, also known as common periwinkle. It’s an invasive species that is sometimes called graveyard vine, because of its use in cemeteries as a groundcover. And that is exactly what I was standing in, the old Golden Cross Cemetery, which was previously called Wood Cemetery.

Grave of Margaret Priestly Garrette

I have walked through old, abandoned cemeteries overrun by trees before, and the undulating ground is telltale. I did not explore the entire expanse, and stuck close to the edge near Dante Road. Though it is not illegal to visit an old cemetery, I did not want to run afoul of a property owner who might not be up on that, and Sandra Clark generally discourages trespass in pursuit of a story.

What was obvious was what was missing – headstones or any other form of grave marker. As I carefully moved along, I did see the tops of some that had otherwise been swallowed by the earth. I found one gravesite with broken markers, lovingly planted with a row of lilies framed by irises that no longer bloom due to a lack of sunlight. And then I found two, lined right up along a patch of mayapples: Willard L. Garrison (d. Feb. 17, 1950) and Margaret Priestly Garrette (d. Nov. 15, 1946).

I snapped a few pictures and made my way back. This little journey was prompted by a video posted online and the discussion that followed. I am not naming anyone here, but feel free to raise your hand in the comments if you read this. In the video, it was stated that it was a lost graveyard for the enslaved. One commentator said there was no proof it was that, but it definitely was an historically Black cemetery.

Unmarked grave planted with iris and lillies

So, consider this Part 1 of this story, because when I jumped down the rabbit hole, I came up with more questions than answers that I could put together in one day. But I wanted to find some proof that it was, in fact, an historic Black cemetery. And that likelihood was found in the omissions. I searched in the Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives for obituaries on the two markers I did find. Nothing. I did a broader search for the cemetery itself in obituaries. Again, nothing.

Sunken headstone in Golden Cross Cemetery

And then I learned a few things. One person had commented that the site went out of use sometime in the 1960s but could possibly have 80-100 graves. Which makes sense. Because between Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, integration started happening. Prior to that, Black citizens were barred from burial in most commercial, public cemeteries. If they did not have property of their own or their church didn’t have a graveyard, what were they to do?

Many in the Black community joined benevolent and fraternal organizations, and that membership insured a decent place for burial when society as a whole had closed the door on that access. Now, the Order of the Golden Cross is a whole other Davinci Code to unravel, which I will not attempt to do here. But, as integration happened and the necessity of providing burial grounds passed, some of those organizations fell away with lack of membership, property changed hands, and decades later a cemetery is reclaimed by mother nature.

Sunlight through the trees

So, this is not a judgment on the current property owner nor the descendants of the dearly departed who rest among the trees. It takes time and money to keep up with land maintenance. Those that are kept up are usually currently operating commercial ventures or attached to a church of some sort.

The reason I couldn’t find any information in the KNS is this: as a general rule, the major newspapers in the Jim Crow south did not publish obituaries of their Black citizens. I spend a lot of time looking through old newspapers, and generally the only coverage of Black people you will find prior to the mid-60s in our local papers is about entertainers, athletes and arrests. Think about that. No wedding announcements or debutant balls, graduations or anniversaries, birthdays or obituaries, business openings or scholarships granted. That erasure shapes the way we see things.

Feel free to enlighten me with anything you know about this historic cemetery.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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