Brandon Mason – African American Cemeteries of Rutherford County

Link to cemeteries blog – “Searching for African-American Cemeteries in Rutherford County, Tennessee”

Project Essay by Brandon Mason

My interest in cemeteries stems from my experiences with genealogical research. Cemeteries and the graves located within them can provide a researcher a lot of useful information such as, birth and death dates, military service rank and dates served, and cause of death. In addition to the data presented on the grave markers, the information obtained from the location and layout of the cemetery itself can give the researcher insight into the familial structure and its economic and social status it once held in life.  I knew that I wanted to complete a project that would be beneficial to those who conduct genealogical research in Rutherford County. Initially, I wanted to produce an online guide to the cemeteries of Rutherford County; however, I soon realized that a project of that magnitude would take far more research than one semester would allow. Due to time constraints, I narrowed my project to the known African-American cemeteries of Rutherford County. Although this drastically reduced the number of cemeteries that would be included in the guide, it was not without its own set of challenges.

I began my research for this project by seeking published articles and books on my topic using the Walker Library located on Middle Tennessee State University’s campus. Unfortunately, I was only able to locate one, Cemeteries and Graveyards of Rutherford County, Tennessee, compiled by Susan G. Daniel and published by the Rutherford County Historical Society in 2005. This book was an excellent starting point for my research; however, out of the 700 or so cemeteries listed within the book, only 16 are specifically noted as African-American. Each cemetery listed within this book has directions to its location, the number of known graves located at the cemetery, and whether or not the cemetery has marked or unmarked graves. [1]

Once I created my list of African-American cemeteries, I began the task of physically visiting each location using the directions given in Daniel’s book. This turned out to be a bigger challenge than expected. Many of the roads listed in her book have since changed names. I wondered why I kept running into this problem and soon found out that it was because the 2005 edition in many respects is simply a reprint of the 1975 edition. Many street names have changed in Rutherford County since 1975. Although this certainly presented a problem, I was not deterred in my search for very long. I began using new technologies like Google Earth and the Rutherford County GIS website to assist in finding the cemeteries on my list.[2] Unfortunately, often times finding the location on a map solved only one of several problems. Once I found what looked to be the location of a cemetery using aerial photos, I still had to physically travel to the location and take photos.

Many times, these cemeteries were located on private property and not visible from any publically accessed road. Another issue I ran into was once I found the location, often times the cemetery was so hidden by overgrowth that the graves were no longer visible. Thankfully, I was able to access several and photograph them.

With the help of history professors Dr. Stacey Graham, and Dr. Kristine McCusker, I was able to locate a few African-American cemeteries not found on my initial list. In fact, one of my most successful finds was due to Dr. Graham’s directions to the Benevolent Cemetery located off of Park Ave in Murfreesboro. I found myself really drawn to this cemetery. Sadly, this cemetery is currently a victim of neglect. It has over 300 graves with many unmarked and others in disrepair. I did additional research on this cemetery and found that News Channel 5 did a story on the condition of the Benevolent Cemetery in February, 2011.[3] After receiving this exposure, I would have expected to find it better shape; however, nothing has been done to clean it up.

The situation at Benevolent Cemetery is not an uncommon problem. After researching approximately 20 African-American cemeteries in Rutherford County, I realized that issues with upkeep are very common due to lack of funding. There may, in some cases, be ideological differences between white cemeteries and African-American cemeteries concerning attitudes towards maintenance; this hypothesis will take further research.

Overall, even with its many challenges, I have enjoyed conducting the research involved with this project. There is an inherent excitement involved in the hunt for these cemeteries. With each cemetery I found, I felt encouraged to accept the challenge of finding the next one. There were only two things that I disliked about this project, the cost of gasoline to drive all over Rutherford County, and ticks. I spent well over $100 in gasoline and pulled-off at least a dozen ticks due to the overgrowth found at many of the cemeteries. Note to self, next time go hunting for cemeteries in the dead of winter.

At the start of this essay I mentioned that cemeteries can yield lots of valuable information. Cemeteries tell a story, a story that is, or at least should be, important to all of us. Cemeteries are historical primary documents. They provide us with evidence of who lived and died in these local communities. I chose this project because I personally feel it is important to preserve our local public history by documenting these cemeteries. “Gone but not forgotten,” the loving phrase that is engrave

[1] Daniel, Susan Garretson. Cemeteries and Graveyards of Rutherford County, Tennessee. Murfreesboro, TN: Rutherford County Historical Society, 2005. Print.

[2] Rutherford County GIS

[3] Murfreesboro & Church in Talks About Overgrown Cemetery

By Mark Bellinger


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