BIRCHWOOD, Tenn. - Looking at the names incised on a granite wall at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park on Sunday, Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, had to choke back tears.
The wall bears the names of Cherokee people who were forced from their homes and marched to Oklahoma in the 1838 removal that came to be called the Trail of Tears. This is the 175th anniversary of the removal.
"It's a place to see their family's name, and have a religious experience," Baker said after a dedication ceremony for the memorial Sunday afternoon.
The granite walls depict the 2,500 family names from the Cherokee Nation Census of 1835, also known as the Henderson Rolls. Each panel represents one of the seven Cherokee clans: Bird, Wild Potato, Deer, Long Hair, Paint, Blue and Wolf.
Baker said the park's wall would help link modern-day Cherokee to their ancestors and clans.
"It's our home," he said.
Ground was broken in June for the wall, the final piece of the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, which was dedicated in 2008 after a 30-year journey to completion. The park memorializes the site where 9,000 Cherokees, their slaves and others left for the trek to Oklahoma.
The center includes a boardwalk and wildlife viewing shelter and a visitor's center with an engraved stone map of the Trail of Tears.
More than 100 people stood under cloudy skies Sunday for the ceremony.
Meigs County Mayor Garland Langford gave a Cherokee greeting of "osiyo," or "hello," before honoring the perseverance of four people who spearheaded the long and sometimes frustrating effort.
"It's a job well done, and it wouldn't have happened without Ray and Shirley Coats Hoskins, Shirley Lawrence and Gloria Schouggins," he said.
Langford also commended former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, businessman Greg Vital and Rhea County Executive George Thacker for their donations and efforts to help with the project. While in office, Wamp secured $1.3 million for the project.
Vital said, "It's a team effort. A lot of people had the vision."
Cherokee tribe member Jack Baker said, "I think it's very fitting" that the memorial wall was built here.
Architect John R. Brown, with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon Inc. in Chattanooga, helped with the wall's design. Brown's great-grandfather, author John P. Brown, wrote the book "Old Frontiers," a historical account of the Cherokees.
Kimberly McMillian is based in Rhea County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.