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Forgotten African-American cemetery finds an unlikely hero

fr cemeteryThe dead lay in indiscernible rows beneath the earth, their resting places marked by a jumble of faded and often illegible stone markers — the most distinguishable carrying etched dates and names, but the most nondescript void of any writing and covered in a thin layer of moss.

Tangled shrubs and poison ivy conceal most of the burial places, and around every wall of impenetrable vegetation rests another cluster of markers.

“Every time I come up here I find a new set of graves,” said Andrew Baldwin, age 16, who unwittingly stumbled upon the graveyard last winter while exploring in the hills near his family’s suburban home — what he described as an eerie experience.

Baldwin, in part motivated by personal interest and in part by completing his Eagle Scout project, has now taken on the mission to bring this abandoned African-American cemetery on the edge of Franklin new life.

It was once New Hope Cemetery — a scenic, hilltop graveyard for deceased members of the New Hope Church, which served a black settlement on the outskirts of Franklin. The African-American church was established in the late 1800s and was used until the 1940s.

But the timeline of the cemetery is a bit hazier.

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The last recorded burial that occurred there was in the 1930s. One of the early historical surveys conducted at the cemetery indicates that the site was already in very bad condition by 1940, meaning the cemetery may have met its end while the church was still in service.

As time passed residents of the black community left the church and their little farms in the settlement to find work and make new lives elsewhere, and the abandoned cemetery was nearly forgotten, until the topic re-surfaced thanks to Baldwin. 

Baldwin brought the decrepit state of the cemetery into public light by appearing before the Macon County Board of Commissioners last month. Following Baldwin’s presentation, commissioners voted to declare the dilapidated site officially abandoned, which allows it to come under county oversight and paves the way for its renovation.

But the cemetery, left unattended for the better part of the last century, will need a lot of work to bring it back to some semblance of order.

Baldwin said he plans to do most of the heavy lifting on the one-acre site, perhaps with some assistance from the county. His father is a landscaper, and Baldwin said that will give him access to the tools he needs. Baldwin is already struggling with how to gain access to the cemetery, because the property is surrounded by private land, but ultimately envisions a small walking path to the site and the debris cleared off graves.

Historical documentation, a combination of death certificates and surveys performed at the site, indicates there are 34 unmarked and seven marked graves, but Baldwin and others believe there may be more. Several markers can still be made out and carry names like Ada Greenwood, who died in 1904, and Lizzie Dickey, who died in 1913, but many markers appear to simply be blank rocks stuck in the soil.

Historical record is scarce but, Franklin resident Josephine Burgess, at the age of 92, did her best to recall her mental record of the site. She claims her father and other family members had been buried there. He died of a heart attack when Burgess was eight years old, she said.

In that era, without modern embalming and corpse preservation techniques, there was not much time to prepare for a funeral. But she said the small, black community around the New Hope Church where she grew up was very close, was much tighter knit.

“You only had so much time to bury them,” Burgess said. “But everybody loved everybody then, in the settlement. Like if someone died, I don’t care what time of night, they’d get out and knock on everyone’s door.”

She said at some point a landowner had gated the road that connected the church to the cemetery, about a half-mile away, and then the road fell into disrepair. She said the last funeral she remembers at the site the body had to be carried to the top of the hill in a cart because a horse-drawn wagon couldn’t navigate the road.

What followed was a diaspora of interred members of the community and her relatives being scattered among different cemeteries. Now, one of the only memories she has of the old church and cemetery is a lantern she took off the wall before the church burned in the late 1960s. (The concrete church steps and bell were also said to have survived the fire.)

Burgess said she couldn’t remember the last time she visited the cemetery but hopes to make the trip one last time. She said Baldwin has been offering to take her up there but she doesn’t know if she can because of her bad arthritis and the difficult access.

“It’s a shame to have people buried there and not have a way to visit,” Burgess said.

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