Nancy De Genarro, The Daily News Journal, February 19, 2017
It’s hard to imagine that homes, barns, vineyards and churches once stood on the stark landscape of native grasses and woods at Stones River National Battlefield.
The Cemetery Community settled shortly after the end of the Civil War and was home to freed African Americans, explained Tiffany Momon with Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation.
“This area was home to more than 30 families at its peak … from 1874 until 1932,” Momon told a group of around 75 tour-goers who braved the rain
and mud Saturday to learn more about the Cemetery Community.
The program is the first of its kind — a collaboration between park rangers, representatives of the African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County, the Thirteenth United States Colored Infantry Living History Association, the Friends of Stones River National Battlefield.
Visitors were shown different locations of the old Cemetery Community and descendants of residents shared stories.
Despite the hardships they’d endured, the freed men and women of the Cemetery Community were able to purchase property and set up roots, Momon said.
Many of those roots remain in the area, even today. Leonora Washington resides behind Stones River United Methodist Church on Old Nashville Highway. She also owns the one-room schoolhouse she once attended.
Washington said the Cemetery Community had three distinct areas: the Cedars where the battlefield is now located; the Bottoms, located just up the road from the cemetery in an area that often flooded; and the Glades, located near what is now Broad Street. Evergreen Graveyard, just across from Bumpus Harley Davidson, is part of the Cemetery Community and associated with Stones River Methodist.
The first residents of Cemetery Community were former U.S. Colored Troops whose job was to build and maintain the Stones River National Cemetery, located just across the road from the battlefield.
“William and his comrades, who go out to the trenches that cover the battlefield, unearth the remains of the (Union) soldiers (who died at the Battle of Stones River) and bury them in Stones River National Cemetery … then build a stone wall around the cemetery,” Park Ranger Jim Lewis told the crowd of umbrella holders standing next to the Hazen Brigade Monument, the oldest intact Civil War monument in the nation that is located on a battlefield.One of those federal employees was William Holland, a slave who had escaped to freedom and fought for the Union Army, only to be recaptured. Eventually, Holland escaped again and rejoined the U.S. Colored Troops.
Later, Holland purchased land just down the road from the cemetery. And he’s also buried on what was his land, right next to the monument, Lewis said.
“He came into this world in 1834 as someone else’s property and he left this world as a property owner,” Lewis told the visitors.
After the cemetery was erected, many of those employees and their families stayed in the area.
Those living in the Cedars part of the Cemetery Community eventually were forced off their land, totaling 170 acres, when the federal government came in to establish Stones River National Battlefield park.
“They really didn’t want to sell the land because that was the first thing they’d owned,” said Gale McLean, whose ancestors helped establish the Cemetery Community. “What I understand was, that if the blacks had not moved from here, they would be burned out.”
Two of the churches were taken up and moved on rails to other locations, including Stones River Methodist Church, which now stands on Old Nashville Highway in the Bottoms, about a mile from the national cemetery. And behind that church, a one-room schoolhouse was constructed. Washington remembered seeing the water get so high, it reached the top of the church steps.
Edith Ann Clark Moore, just three generations away from slavery, grew up in the home across from Stones River Methodist. Her grandfather, Mel Malone, bought the land in the early 1900s and built a home.
She said her grandfather had no construction experience, but used materials off his land and some ingenuity to build a small home, which still stands although it is in disrepair. The family is in the process of clearing the land in order to restore it.
“These are actually trees he cut down off the land and used it to shore up the house,” said Moore, showing the remnant of a cedar tree emerging from a crumbling cemented pillar of the home. “The rocks were mined from the area.”
Determination and grit motivated her grandfather to build a life of his own, and Moore said that was passed down to her mother, and then to her. Albeit a poor community, children were expected to behave and excel in education.
“We had a community who loved us … and never told us the sky wasn’t the limit,” Moore said.
Reach reporter Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter @DNJMama