While June ushers in the hot, humid days of summer, the month also plays a prominent role in the special events of remembrance that follow the commemoration of Memorial Day.
Historically in the South, June hosts Decoration Sundays when families gather together to decorate the graves of their "dearly departed," often sharing dinner on the grounds and religious services including the singing of hymns and patriotic melodies. Family members who did not attend these special gatherings were silently shamed for their lack of reverence; the undecorated graves of family members were identified as disgraceful conduct by the heirs of the family name. While Decoration Sundays have been less popular in recent years, many of our citizens enjoy exploring older cemeteries, understanding that the tombstones and monuments are often a most eloquent history lesson waiting to be studied.
While the coronavirus pandemic may limit large gatherings, June beckons our residents to explore several of the area's most historic cemeteries.
An excellent place to begin an on-site history lesson would be Beck Knob Cemetery, possibly the oldest African American cemetery in the region. The cemetery was established after the Civil War on land that would become known as the Joshua Beck farm. Beck, a prominent citizen and prominent landowner, set aside the cemetery as a place for servants, families of former slaves and three former Union Army soldiers, formerly residents of Chattanooga's Camp Contraband. In 1888, the Beck family transferred the deed for the land to the Hurst Memorial M.E. Church, and church officials named the cemetery as a remembrance of Beck's generosity.
Burials continued there until the 1940s. Records indicate that the North Side Garden Club cleared the property and planted flowerbeds in the 1960s. Three decades ago, Alma Webb, regent of the Daughters of the Union and a cemetery preservationist, began an extensive documentation of the identifiable graves, accounting for more than 100 burial sites. By cross-referencing Hamilton County death certificates, Webb identified members of prominent Chattanooga families for whom the records identified Beck Knob Cemetery as their place of internment. Among the family names listed were more than a dozen members of the Jackson family, 10 Williams family members, nine individuals whose last name was Scruggs and six Taylors.
By 2015, the cemetery had disappeared from view as a result of spreading drapes of kudzu vines and dense undergrowth. When GreenTech Homes began construction in the region, the cemetery was "rediscovered," and development came to a quick halt. As work began to clear the grounds, it was learned that even the ornate wrought-iron sign had disappeared; members of a quickly assembled preservation committee speculated it had been removed by vandals and sold for scrap iron.
When one visits the cemetery today, it is obvious that much work remains. A strategic plan was developed by the members of the African American Cemeteries of Chattanooga Committee. Beth Murphy, committee member, notes that "The African American cemeteries of Chattanooga are an integral part of understanding the history of Chattanooga. However, due to indifference and lack of funding, their preservation has often been neglected. In 2018, the African American Cemetery Preservation Fund (AACPF) was created with an $8,500 donation from the Benwood Foundation and Sankofa Fund for Civic Engagement. Today, the fund's objective remains the same: restore and preserve two exclusively African American cemeteries native to Chattanooga, Pleasant Garden and Beck Knob cemeteries."
The committee, co-chaired by Gary James of Hurst Memorial and Donivan Brown, has secured the assistance of Dr. Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.
In assessing the importance of Beck Knob Cemetery, West reflected, "Upon emancipation, African Americans rushed to create three community institutions: churches, schools and cemeteries. Cemeteries had always been important but newly freed people could now control where and how their loved ones were buried. Cemeteries were places of identity, respect and community empowerment. They are most worthy of preservation and serve as important places of history and memory."
Intrigued by this story? Grab your boots and head to North Chattanooga and Beck Knob Cemetery, located off Dartmouth Street. As you visit the historic site, you will notice two things immediately: 1) Beck Knob Cemetery is a largely unknown treasury of the past, written on marble headstones, and 2) Volunteers are needed. If you would like to join the preservation efforts, contact Gary James at Hurst United Methodist Church.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, serves as regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR, and as a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission.