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Forgotten but Not Gone: The Tragedy of Benevolent Society #2 Cemetery

Exploring the history of one of Nashville’s long-overlooked Black burial spaces

  • 11 min to read

Four-hundred or so crumbling concrete rectangles jut out of the vinca at the top of a ravaged hill, silver circles embedded on top of the concrete. They’re numbered so that, if anyone comes looking and remembers where the dead person they’re looking for was first buried, the number can be linked to a location that no longer exists. Since no one knows the dead are here, no one comes looking.

Benevolent Society #2 Cemetery is not supposed to exist. At least, not anymore. And yet, twice I’ve stumbled my way up through the dense brush and the briars, trying to keep the cliff to my right so that I wouldn’t get too lost, and stood in the remains of this cemetery that was destroyed.

The deed to the property on Brick Church Pike says the general public has a right to access the cemetery, but in practical terms, that right belongs only to the foolish and the surefooted. It is virtually impossible for family members of the people in the cemetery to visit the cemetery. It is also virtually impossible for family members to discover that they are related to the people in the cemetery, as no official list exists of who is buried there.

I’d been looking for the cemetery in the wrong spot, up at the corner of Ewing and Brick Church, where the website Find a Grave said it had been located. I mentioned to my friend, Sunny Fleming — who happens to be vice president of the Tennessee Geographic Information Council — that I couldn’t even see where a cemetery as big as the one described in historical documents could have been at that intersection, considering the ages of the buildings there and the fact that I knew the cemetery had existed up until 1995.

Fleming went to work, using old maps, archaeological records and publicly available light detection and ranging (or LiDAR) data. 

“The archaeological record gave me a better location to target, but modern imagery revealed warehouses and a hillside obscured by trees,” Fleming told me. “The LiDAR data allowed me to ‘put on X-ray goggles’, but for the Earth’s surface. This allowed me to detect two unnaturally shaped rectangular anomalies at the top of the hill of our area of interest — which later I was able to cross-reference to deed information accessed on Metro’s parcel viewer that confirmed these as the extant location of the reinterments.

“The obvious action was then to go see it for ourselves,” she continued. “Having talked to the archaeologist who conducted the work, he did his best to mentally prepare me for what I would see.” 

Still, when Fleming, her husband and I made our way up there, to this place that was supposed to be a fitting alternative to the cemetery these people’s loved ones put them in, what we found was very distressing.

Fleming gave me her impressions of what we found. “The existing cemetery is densely packed, and the reinterment was conducted on a slab of limestone, so soil had to be brought in to cover the new graves. The graves are barely covered, and erosion has occurred over time, with invasive ivy now covering the entirety of the site. It’s barely delineated with deteriorating orange erosion fencing, like a construction site. It made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t walk around much because I was afraid of damaging it further. The fragility of the site was the thing that shocked me first. Then we came across a pile of headstones. Just an anonymous compilation of names engraved on rocks, covered in soil and moss and eroding away. The metaphor was obvious — despite having been carefully and lovingly carved at one time, they were still cast away and discarded carelessly by others who had no intention of giving a shit.” 

How did it come to this?


The First Cemetery — 1840s

In 1872, Thomas W. Ballou — who lived out along Brick Church Pike, northwest of East Nashville — sold this land to the Edgefield Benevolent Society #2. Benevolent Societies in the African American community were part social club and part insurance for people who couldn’t buy insurance. The motto of the Benevolent Societies was always some form of “To Care for the Sick and to Bury the Dead.” The acquisition of Ballou’s land meant that the members of Benevolent Society #2 now had their own dedicated space for burying their dead. The deed states that the society was getting all the land — 17 acres and 38 poles (a pole is about the  length of a canoe) — except for the 9 square poles that were enclosed on the property, which the heirs of Jesse Parker were using as a family burial ground.

As best I can tell, this was everything on the west side of Brick Church Pike, from Haynie Avenue to the south up to the old dirt path that was known as Vista Lane (not the current Vista Lane). The back edge of the property was where the remnant cemetery is now.

Jesse Parker, whose heirs already had a cemetery on the land, was white. He had no children, or at least none who were named in his will when he died in 1845. His heirs were his brother-in-law, John Lanier, and his brother-in-law’s kids, and the families of his six other brothers and sisters. His nephew, George, got Jesse’s horse and saddle.

In the 1850 census, five years after Jesse’s death, 28-year-old George Parker was living with his widowed mom and his unmarried sister across from the family cemetery next to some Laniers (judging by ages, probably cousins). Right down the road from them, past the Kirkwoods, the Byrnes and the Kirkpatricks were more Parkers — Thomas, who was 80, Harry, who was 75, and Margaret, who was 70. They owned $300 worth of property. They were Black. They were free. Thomas, like Jesse, came from North Carolina, and the two men were neighbors as far back as I could find.

Map of benevolent cemetery #2

We don’t know that they’re brothers, Jesse and Thomas, but their ages and patterns of residency suggest it. And Thomas, Harry and Margaret were all old enough in 1850 to make it likely that they were in the Parker family cemetery in 1872, along with Jesse.

Which brings us to Jesse’s nephew George Parker, who was white, and the woman who could not legally be his wife, Caroline Whitworth. In both the 1870 census and the 1880 census, George Parker was living with Caroline Whitworth and a bunch of Whitworth children. When the Whitworth children grew up, most of them took the last name Parker. George is listed on their death certificates as their father, Caroline as their mother. 

Caroline was born around 1840. Her three oldest children — Willis, Lucy and Joseph — were all born into slavery with Caroline. Willis, the oldest, was born when Caroline was 15. In the 1860 slave schedule, nearby slaver James Whitworth is listed as owning three women the right age to be Caroline. In the 1870 census, Caroline is listed as “mulatto.” In 1860, two of James Whitworth’s 20-year-old enslaved women were listed as the same. In 1860, Willis would have been 5 and Lucy 3. James Whitworth owned a 5-year-old mixed-race boy and a 2-year-old mixed-race girl.

Caroline’s family was large, but it was tight-knit. Caroline had a younger brother, Daniel Toney, who she stayed close with. Their mother Effie later married William Harris and had five children with him. These Harris children, many of them close in age to Caroline’s children, were indeed very close to her children; one of the Harris sisters lived with Caroline’s daughter when they were both adults.

This all explains why a white man would sell land that had a white family cemetery on it to a group of Black people: The Parker family cemetery likely was already racially mixed.


The Second Cemetery — 1872

The Benevolent cemetery was dedicated on a Sunday, June 9, 1872. The Republican Banner reported that four bands, six mutual aid societies, 10 wagons full of singing Sunday-school children and people who just came out to walk along proceeded from Main and Foster streets (the latter is now Seventh Street) in Edgefield four miles away from the cemetery location. The parade grew to be a mile-and-a-half long. The Banner estimated that 6,000 people came to the dedication ceremony, and the story ends: “It is a noteworthy fact that the vendors of refreshments were not allowed upon the grounds, the societies deeming them too sacred for such traffic.”

I wanted to follow this route from the heart of East Nashville out to the Benevolent Cemetery, just to see what I could see, what I might learn. But this route literally doesn’t exist anymore. Foster got cut in two by Ellington Parkway on one end, and the intersection where Foster met Dickerson was obliterated by the Gordian knot of I-24, Dickerson and Spring Street. Even the way the community moved through East Nashville was destroyed and carved up. Not just the cemetery has been lost, but the literal route through the neighborhoods to the cemetery has been destroyed.

The last burial I could find in the cemetery happened in 1955. The Interstate Highway System plan was enacted in 1956. Construction on I-24 started in 1958. This, along with the urban renewal projects that started in the 1950s, probably spelled the doom of the cemetery. The people who used it couldn’t get to it. 


 

The Third Cemetery — 1995

For all practical purposes, the Benevolent cemetery ceased to exist on March 6, 1961. Eighty-three-year-old widow Cora Stratton, the last remaining member of Benevolent Society #2, had sold the cemetery land to a group called the Paradise Educational Club in January of that year. In March, this organization modified the deed.

WHEREAS, the said deed is irregular because said property was purportedly conveyed for the purpose of a cemetery; and whereas, the said Trustees of the Paradise Educational Club did not purchase said property from Cora Stratton for the purpose of a cemetery; and whereas, no cemetery has been erected thereon, except the nine (9) square poles which is now enclosed and used as a burying ground by the heirs of Jerry Parker …

I don’t know what to make of this. “No cemetery has been erected thereon”? That’s just not true. And certainly, if Mrs. Stratton was in mentally competent condition when she signed this, she would have known it was not true. The trustees of this club are listed on the deed as Eldrige Patton, Olivia Cheatham, Henry Clark, George Allen, Dora Scruggs and Calvin Magee. Most of those last names are also last names of people buried in the cemetery, but I couldn’t find any definitive connections. I could find no other information about this club — no listing in the phone book, no incorporation records, no mention in the newspapers.

Cora Stratton died in 1964. She was not buried in the cemetery her friends and neighbors a generation older than her founded and that she spent the last part of her life shepherding. Though it was still a place in the physical world, by the time she died, it had already legally disappeared.

Without ongoing burials, anyone to tend to it, an easy way for people to get from their neighborhoods to it or even a deed upon which it still existed, the cemetery was considered abandoned. Still, had you been able to see it in those abandoned years, you could have at least expected to see the kinds of features you can still see in other Black cemeteries in Davidson County. Many African American cemeteries here were, first, old slave cemeteries. Black people after the Civil War found ways to pool resources and buy these cemeteries because they wanted to be buried with the members of their families who had died before the war. But very few enslaved people were going to have headstones with names, because they weren’t allowed to read and write. Those graves were marked with fieldstones or plants. 

When Tennessee State University history professor Dr. Learotha Williams Jr. visited the remnant graveyard, he found piles of those old fieldstones. He told me, “It was only after I saw piles of broken/misshapen flat rocks stacked up against trees and other odd places and realizing that that sort of thing didn’t naturally occur in nature that it dawned on me that I was looking at broken and discarded headstones.”

It’s not unusual to see old trees in rows or clusters in old Black cemeteries, because they were planted to mark the graves of loved ones. It’s also very common to see clumps of lilies or old daffodils. Sometimes graves were marked with wooden markers, which didn’t hold up well over time. It’s also common for old African American graveyards to be covered in vinca, which is lower-maintenance than grass, but does make a cemetery look overgrown if you don’t recognize why it’s there.

Was the Benevolent cemetery in any worse shape in 1995 than the Nashville City Cemetery was at that same time? No. But one got saved and one didn’t.

The owners of the property at that time, members of the Gilbert family, got permission from the Metro Council to remove the remains of the people buried there. Considering that the Paradise Educational Club got the cemetery removed from the deed long before this, we’re probably lucky they actually acknowledged it was a cemetery. The owners hired an archaeologist, and that archaeologist and his team dug up all the graves they could identify and relocated them to the back of the property, at the top of the hill. The property owners then cut away the side of the hill to make a flat area for the warehouses that are there now. This means that anyone the archaeologist missed was hauled away with the hillside and dumped wherever the pieces of that hillside were dumped. This was all done legally.

One of the landowners at the time, Harris Gilbert, told The Tennessean: “We’re going to enclose the cemetery with a hedge or a nice rock wall. We just want to put them in an organized place in a respectable fashion.”

There is no hedge, no wall. Just orange plastic temporary fencing that has mostly fallen over. 

The main reason the destruction of the Benevolent cemetery was allowed to happen is that no one knew who was buried in it. No families came forward to say, “Hey, those are my people in there.” Both Glenn Moss, who lived on Brick Church Pike in the 1990s, and Lawrence Jackson, president of the Haynes Area Residents Association at the time, told The Tennessean that they had tried to find out who was buried in the cemetery, but had been unsuccessful. 

Things are different now. The Tennessee Historical Commission has recently brought on Graham Perry to be the historic preservation specialist on cemeteries. He’s putting together a statewide database of all of Tennessee’s cemeteries that landowners, developers, real estate agents, historians, genealogists, planning departments and so on will be able to use to locate cemeteries and navigate the state laws around them.

When I talked to Perry for this story, he told me, “I will gladly take any location and historical information about a cemetery.” He had me pinpoint the exact location of the remnant Benevolent cemetery so that he could be sure it’s correctly located and identified in the state database. This makes the cemetery once again real in such a way that it will be harder to disappear it from future deeds. It also means he can act as a clearinghouse of information and advice about how best to tend to the cemetery, if that’s what descendants want.

But without headstones or cemetery records, how can people know if their ancestors are in the Benevolent cemetery?

In June, I got to hear Kathy Lauder, retired Tennessee State Library and Archives employee and graveyard guru, talking about how she was piecing together a record of everyone buried in historically Black grounds Mt. Ararat and the original Greenwood cemeteries, since many of the early cemetery records had been lost in a fire. One of the tools she’s using? The city’s death records.

First in the death register and then on a person’s death certificate, some city employee wrote down where a person who died in Nashville was going to be put in the ground. Just by going through the death registers from 1881-1899, as well as searching through death certificates, I’ve come up with the names of about 240 of the people buried in the Benevolent cemetery.

What can I tell you about them? The cemetery is filled with familiar old Nashville names — McFerrin, Ridley, Robertson and Douglas among them. They were all from East Nashville, which makes sense. If they were from other parts of town, they would have belonged to other Benevolent Societies and been buried in other Benevolent cemeteries. 

And there were so, so many children. Some were so young they didn’t have names yet. Some had names that made me think their parents were trying to bless them with strength to make their way in this hard world — John Henry Ezell, little Fred Douglas and Queen Jane McGavock among them. Infants and toddlers dead of the croup and teething and fevers and general weakness. The vast majority of burials I found records for were for very young children.

Dr. Williams tells me, “These spaces — no matter how unsuitable the ground was for burying their loved ones — became sacred ground when they purchased, consecrated it, and laid the first person to rest in it.”

It is still sacred now, and though so much of the cemetery has been lost, not all of it is destroyed. There are still some headstones. The vinca in the removed cemetery is likely a remnant from the old cemetery. And now we have some names. If their families are looking for them, they are up at the top of an old hill at the end of a hard hike, waiting to be found.


 

A Partial List of Interments at Benevolent Society #2 Cemetery

Last Name First Name Date of Death
Allen James June 4, 1887
Allison Thomas October 23, 1886
Anderson John March 12, 1881
Anthony Washington May 11, 1882
Armstrong Mary
Baber Alice August 22, 1897
Baber Samella September 3, 1897
Banks Mary January 15, 1927
Banks Richard July 14, 1883
Berry Infant June 2, 1899
Bivans Charlotte October 3, 1896
Bowman Ben October 23, 1898
Bowman George April 18, 1895
Bradley Mary December 22, 1884
Branch William February 7, 1885
Bransford Minnie January 24, 1885
Bransford Walter January 9, 1882
Brown Richard A. March 3, 1894
Brown Tilman March 14, 1899
Bugg James November 29, 1890
Cage Walter July 23, 1882
Campbell Susan January 13, 1887
Cantrell Ed M. November 15, 1894
Cantrell Lucinda August 6, 1891
Carpenter Jordan December 17, 1938
Carpenter Robert January 2, 1938
Cheatham Infant August 30, 1889
Childress S. D. May 17, 1892
Childs Eugene January 30, 1886
Clark Myra December 3, 1894
Clark Plummer January 25, 1884
Cohn Lydia October 3, 1893
Cole Mollie October 2, 1889
Coleman Willis December 24, 1885
Conley Reuben February 23, 1884
Conn Mary Ella January 17, 1884
Conner Lydia May 15, 1887
Cowan (?) Mad[???]ire September 28, 1897
Craur Valley November 13, 1890
Crawford Infant March 4, 1885
Crosseray [illegible] March 6, 1897
Crosseray March 6, 1897
Crossway Chainey August 3, 1882
Crump Ada August 5, 1885
Darden Lena Wise May 12, 1904
Davidson Infant February 1, 1884
Davidson John March 25, 1893
Dickenson Mamie August 29, 1886
Dortch George R. February 27, 1895
Doss Minie July 31, 1883
Douglas Fred March 6, 1898
Douglas Harry August 24, 1887
Douglas Leeanna September 6, 1891
Douglas Mary B. December 16, 1883
Douglas Minnie October 18, 1887
Driver Clara February 17, 1885
Dyser Infant November 28, 1886
Evans Mamie April 5, 1887
Evans Wilburn September 25, 1886
Ewin Infant January 14, 1886
Ezell John Henry October 1, 1886
Farrow Robert January 24, 1895
Ferrell Dalton July 22, 1887
Fikes Ben March 3, 1928
Fisher Charlie February 25, 1901
Fisher Joseph December 26, 1901
Forrest Landis September 16, 1886
Gannaway Syrus (maybe?) September 15, 1886
Garret (?) Evan (?) April 15, 1891
Gilliam Alfred March 28, 1886
Gilliam Emma October 14, 1888
Gilliam Infant August 31, 1883
Givans or Giraus? Mad December 9, 1885
Gordon Charles September 4, 1883
Grant Mamie January 8, 1891
Hall Dora December 21, 1896
Hampton George June 10, 1887
Hampton Mary July 25, 1885
Harper Bettie March 18, 1887
Harper Gertrude March 13, 1887
Harper Melville February 26, 1887
Harris Alfred November 19, 1936
Harris Mandy December 1, 1904
Harris Plum May 3, 1955
Harris William August 10, 1893
Hartsfield Fayette October 20, 1885
Hilliard Nellie April 24, 1884
Hite Mary July 17, 1888
Holland Pennie March 16, 1886
Hooper Marincy (?) April 13, 1899
Hopkins Delphia A. May 17, 1897
Horn Lina October 16, 1898
Howlett Joe Alfred June 19, 1921
Hunter David January 28, 1896
Hurt Eliza December 2, 1895
Huston David October 5, 1884
Inman Caroline December 11, 1887
Jackson Andrew September 1, 1888
Jackson Eliza April 24, 1888
Jackson Lucy November 18, 1884
Jackson Mary November 23, 1897
Jenkins Robb February 6, 1899
Joiner Mary Lou September 29, 1888
Jones Frank October 17, 1895
Jones Infant February 11, 1882
Kennedy Minnie March 6, 1884
Kennedy Peter October 22, 1895
Kennedy Rebecca December 31, 1888
Kirby Martin January 3, 1888
Kizer Robert September 21, 1890
Lawrence James January 25, 1886
Lawrence Sallie J. December 11, 1883
Lee Jennie April 22, 1895
Lester Mary September 1, 1894
Lester William March 18, 1911
Lewis Millie October 18, 1887
Lloyd Betty July 14, 1887
Lytle M[???] May 30, 1884
Mallet Kizzie December 28, 1885
Marble Infant February 14, 1897
Martaiu (?) Morning (?) February 1, 1889
Mathias John February 8, 1886
Matlock Abraham April 28, 1899
Maxey Charlie October 26, 1887
McCall Infant September 26, 1894
McClain Rachel July 10, 1893
McCollough Hattie April 24, 1884
McConley Hattie February 11, 1884
McCoy Thomas February 16, 1886
McFerrin George February 1, 1895
McFerrin Lula August 4, 1882
McFerrin Laura B. February 18, 1896
McGavock Anna October 30, 1883
McGavock Priscilla October 26, 1893
McGavock Queen Jane November 3, 1886
McGinnis Infant March 28, 1885
McKay H[???] A. October 17, 1883
Miller William D. September 2, 1888
Mills James July 22, 1955
Moore Casias August 6, 1887
Moore Frankie June 28, 1886
Moore Lindsley April 27, 1888
Morgan Mary October 7, 1894
Motlow Joseph June 3, 1894
Neal Celia February 22, 1886
Neely Lucy February 8, 1884
Nichols V.N. April 21, 1882
Noll Lena April 16, 1886
Oakley Dolly (nee Williams) December 4, 1931
Oliver Eddie February 20, 1884
Owendorff Cato November 6, 1881
Parker Henry May 28, 1911
Payne Louisa November 28, 1890
Payton Infant March 4, 1885
Peppers (?) Pigeon July 31, 1892
Peyton Clara February 1, 1887
Phillips [illegible] July 15, 1891
Phillips Carrie October 30, 1887
Phillips Joel April 13, 1888
Phillips Robert August 3, 1892
Rawles Infant September 23, 1893
Reynolds David May 1, 1890
Reynolds James July 27, 1889
Reynolds Lizzie March 13, 1887
Reynolds Minnie December 8, 1891
Rhodes Infant January 19, 1891
Ridley Annie April 27, 1881
Ridley Hardin April 18, 1887
Riley William Bonney March 26, 1905
Robb James April 1, 1881
Roberson Johnnie E. March 7, 1887
Robertson Tom October 28, 1948
Roberts George Jr. May 3, 1928
Robertson Virgil May 21, 1886
Samuels Robert H. July 12, 1887
Sanders Hayes August 20, 1883
Scruggs Dan August 30, 1882
Shaw Jefferson November 11, 1885
Shelby Isaiah July 10, 1884
Shelby Sarah May 26, 1892
Simmons Carroll February 26, 1898
Simmons Polly December 11, 1900
Simms Travis March 27, 1930
Simpson Polly December 24, 1886
Sims Charles May 26, 1887
Sleet Albert October 27, 1896
Small Julia October 1, 1901
Smith Isaac April 28, 1881
Smith Jane February 19, 1886
Smith Jesse January 7, 1887
Smithers (?) Milly December 12, 1885
Spurr James February 18, 1892
Spurs Levy November 14, 1884
Standard Sarah June 14, 1886
Starks Martha August 9, 1897
Stephenson W. D. November 3, 1898
Still Isaac May 31, 1890
Stull Tim August 9, 1892
Stull (?) Emma December 15, 1891
Sweeney Daisy January 7, 1886
Taylor Josephine February 3, 1894
Tell Aggie July 15, 1884
Terril (?) Millie January 17, 1887
Tilly J.F.
Turner Alice December 10, 1897
Turner Panel (?) October 14, 1918
Turningtine Anna July 18, 1897
Vinson Barbara (nee Turner) November 10, 1935
Wallace [???]lisha May 15, 1881
Wallace Bessie June 13, 1896
Wallace Matt Dena (?) June 14, 1896
Washington William November 15, 1941
Watkins Lacreacy April 1, 1898
Weakley Charlotte April 9, 1886
Webb Ada April 19, 1887
Webb Infant January 19, 1886
Wharton Jerry June 8, 1890
Wharton Lafayette August 4, 1887
Wharton William June 19, 1885
While (or White?) Harry March 28, 1899
White Mary January 27, 1904
White Olivia April 16, 1896
White Robert April 1, 1890
Wigfall Lydia July 25, 1899
Wilkerson Carrie June 1, 1891
Wilkerson James May 5, 1891
Wilkerson Mollie July 10, 1891
Wilkerson Thomas January 6, 1904
Williams James January 20, 1887
Williams John March 28, 1882
Williams John June 30, 1890
Williams Lizzie August 6, 1885
Williams Mary March 16, 1885
Williams Priscilla October 1, 1886
Williams Rose April 12, 1881
Willis Morgan June 20, 1890
Wilson Frank (maybe?) September 2, 1886
Woodson Samuel March 20, 1886
Woodward James W. May 13, 1898
Wright Luther February 25, 1894
Young Aron March 27, 1889
Young Henry April 30, 1886

 

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