Volunteers restore Dante cemetery

Sandra ClarkOur Town Stories, Powell

(Editor’s Note: This story ran during our first year, Oct. 3, 2017, and was written by Shannon Carey.)

Volunteers and students are working to pull an abandoned cemetery back from the brink. Weaks Cemetery, dating back to at least 1907, was overgrown and used as an illegal dumpsite until it drew attention from folks who care.

Weaks Cemetery is located along Dante Road and backs up to Dante Church of God’s new youth building. Chris Hammond, a health sciences teacher at Central High School, lives in Powell and drives by the site on his way to work every day.

Chris Hammond stands with a recently planted redbud tree at Weaks Cemetery in Dante. (Photos by S. Carey)

“One day, I thought I saw a tombstone, and it kept bothering me, so I stopped and took pictures,” he said.

He reached out to friend Mike Clifton who grew up in Dante. Clifton had never heard of the cemetery, either, but he was hooked. The pair started clearing out brush and trash, including building waste and car parts. They marked what unmarked graves they could find and cleaned existing tombstones.

Hammond also started some research. An amateur historian and genealogist, he found census records and death certificates for those interred in Weaks Cemetery. He discovered that the site was an African-American cemetery. Samuel and Betsey Weaks are the earliest marked graves, dated to 1907. Another Weaks Cemetery grave belongs to Granville Alexander, a veteran of the Spanish-American War. Hammond placed an American flag and a solar-powered light on his grave.

Other details lend credence to the idea that the cemetery is possibly older than 1907, and that it was attached to an African-American church. A rough chunk of white limestone is backed by irises that still bloom, and a neighboring fieldstone could be an old grave marker. A well-worn path still winds through the cemetery, and records show that an African-American school used to be located on Dantedale Road just down the way.

Hammond looped his Central HOSA students in on the project, asking if they’d like to raise money for the cemetery. They responded by raising almost $700 with a car wash and bake sale and placing a Weaks Cemetery research display at the East Tennessee History Fair. The funds will go to repair damaged grave markers and to place a monument to those whose graves are unmarked.

The nearby Dante Church of God has pitched in as well, helping clear brush and haul away trash. Once the cemetery is cleared and planted with some kind of ground cover, the church has committed to keeping it mowed and maintained.

“We just feel like it’s the right thing to do to honor those who have been in the community and passed on,” said pastor David Snyder. “We’re just trying to have a good testimony in the community.”

Hammond echoed the sentiment, remembering local traditions of visiting and decorating graves on Memorial Day.

“You turn on the TV, and you see so many bad things,” he said. “I think if we focused on building things up instead of tearing things down, I think this country could actually come together. Nobody deserves to have their graves treated like this. If I don’t do something, I’m just as guilty as the people that dumped here. It’s just the right thing to do.”

For more information or to support this project, email Chris Hammond at christopher.hammond@knoxschools.org.

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