Chattanooga's first organized Black cemetery, Beck Knob, officially named to National Register

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Gary James talks about the number of graves obscured by weeds and tall grass at Beck Knob Cemetery in Chattanooga on Friday, May 14, 2021.

Beck Knob Cemetery, believed to be the first organized Black cemetery in Chattanooga, has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, along with four other sites in Southeast Tennessee.

Beck Knob, home to graves of Black Chattanooga residents dating back to the Civil War and earlier, is one of seven properties in the state to receive the designation. The Tennessee Historical Commission announced the listings Friday in a news release.

For Gary James, member of Hurst United Methodist Church on Dallas Road, the deed holder of the Beck Knob Cemetery property, the listing marks the end of one long chapter for the cemetery at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Carrington Way and a new beginning for its future as a historic landmark.

Members of James' grandmother's family - the Waltons - are buried inside the boundaries of Beck Knob, where he spent time as a boy maintaining those graves.

"Praise the Lord," James exclaimed Friday when he heard about the listing.

James said he'd been hoping to hear something soon on the nomination and Friday's announcement could only be topped by the birth of his great-granddaughter on Thursday.

"We're super excited about it, and we have older members who have been inquiring about it," James said.

He said people who had become somewhat disconnected from the cemetery and church have gained interest in what might have been a lost treasure.

"We've got a big cleanup day coming on the 24th of July, and this kind of puts the cherry on top of it," he said.

James, fellow church members and Beck Knob Cemetery families want to get the site cleaned up for the church's 138th anniversary celebration in August.

James said the listing will trigger more support for preservation work at the cemetery.

"We already have a vision of what we want it to look like when it's done," he said.

In May, James talked about why it's important and what he'd like to see happen after the cemetery gains the designation.

"Cemeteries provided a place where we could assemble and we could honor our dead and have a sense of community," James said in May as he stood amid waist-high weeds and overgrowth that have overtaken the site.

"It has great value in the community, and we just feel that partnering with the community around us, if we can get it on that historic registry we can have something in the community that not only can honor the dead but that all of us can be proud of."

The listing acknowledges historic sites' significance, state historical commission officials said.

"This designation recognizes the significance of properties that highlight Tennessee's important history and the value of their presence in Tennessee's landscape," state historic preservation officer and executive director Patrick McIntyre said in the release.

Beck Knob Cemetery

Beck Knob Cemetery was the first burial ground established for African Americans in Chattanooga, according to nominating documents for the cemetery's placement on the national register.

The one-acre site is on the south side of a steep hill in North Chattanooga bound by partially wooded residential lots, an undeveloped lot and two bordering streets.

"Oral tradition in the North Chattanooga African American community is that Black people who died circa 1865 in the Union army contraband camps of North Chattanooga were the first burials," nomination documents state. "Officially deeded to a local African American church congregation - now known as Hurst United Methodist - in 1888, the documented burial period of Beck Knob Cemetery is 1884 to 1952."

Visual surveys and state death records indicate there are at least 188 people buried there, but there could be more, documents state.

(READ MORE: Mines: Beck Knob Cemetery is a treasury of the past in North Chattanooga)

"This is believed to be a conservative number, as it does not include individuals buried at Beck Knob before it was officially deeded to the church, nor does it include burials that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that may not have been captured by official records," documents state.

About 42 existing gravestones or markers indicate graves of the people buried there who "belonged to the working class employed as domestic workers and laborers for private families or in Chattanooga's manufacturing plants," documents state. There is a notable exception in Chattanooga pharmacist Chester Lee Sharpe, interred there in 1942.

In 2009, a local Eagle Scout worked to clear the cemetery and map and photograph the stones, and local historian E. Raymond Evans included a hand-drawn map of the cemetery and photographs of the stones in his 2012 work, "Bright Memories: Beck Farm, Camp Contraband and Hill City."

In 2015, developer Green Tech Homes uncovered part of the cemetery during construction of a 10-acre neighborhood with 46 homes in the 800 block of Dartmouth Street. The developer stopped work until after an archaeological assessment and redesign of plans.

In 2018, Beck Knob Cemetery, along with two other historic African American cemeteries, Pleasant Garden and Hardwick, became beneficiaries of the city of Chattanooga's new African American Cemetery Preservation Fund, designed to aid volunteers in maintenance and preservation, documents state.

Three other Southeast Tennessee sites also were named to the National Register for 2021.

Price-Evans Foundry

Also in Hamilton County, the Price-Evans Foundry site on South Holtzclaw Avenue, also known as Lucey Boiler, is directly across from the Chattanooga National Cemetery and now being developed as a residential and commercial space, according to developer Southern Spear.

The site consists of five 1907-era buildings on almost five acres covering two city blocks on the edge of the Highland Park neighborhood, according to nomination documents. The structures there include a former main office building, a pattern building, a machine warehouse and a main foundry building.

Big Hill Fire Lookout

In Marion County, 1947-era Big Hill Fire Lookout Tower is 60 feet high and made of skeletal galvanized steel. The tower sits atop Big Hill on the Cumberland Plateau at an elevation of 2,032 feet. It has an observation deck with a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, according to nomination documents.

A small cabin, a utility building and a crew house, all also dating back to 1947, are included in the nomination as contributing buildings, documents state. The tower and its view of the forested surrounding terrain have changed little in the past seven decades, and the property's characteristics retain their integrity.

T-201 Aircraft Hangar

In Coffee County, the nominee is a T-201 aircraft hangar built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941 that harks back to the community's military past, according to documents. The World War II-era hangar stands at what is now the Tullahoma Regional Airport and is remarkable for its facade of 10 massive sliding doors, roofline, fenestration patterns, metal cladding and a large open floor plan that was historically used for aviation instruction and the storage of aircraft.

Now a part of a nearly $1 million project, the facility is being renovated to hold three new companies, provide hangar space for corporate and general aviation aircraft and possibly house a repair station.

Elsewhere in Tennessee, four other sites made the National Register including Overton Park Court Apartments in Shelby County and fire lookout towers in Overton County and Unicoi County, according to commission officials.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.