Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sixth Street Cemetery or Southern Hills

Not long after purchasing The Bungalow in 2010, a local historian dropped by the house.  I was red-faced and sweating over the sloped back yard and a borrowed mower, and was alarmed to see the elderly gentleman standing patiently inside the gate waiting for my attention.  He was looking for an old cemetery that was supposed to be hidden in the brush somewhere near our home.  On the verge of a coronary from the heat and exertion, I told the man that I had no idea what he was talking about, but asked if he would like to sit for a spell on the front porch where it was cooler.  It was there in that blessed shade that he spoke of a long forgotten cemetery that was the final resting place for many of the African American community members who lived near and worked for those wealthy folks who lived in the historical district.  He said that he knew the cemetery was out on this ridge, overlooking the bird sanctuary, but because of all the undergrowth, he was having a hard time finding it.  It was a mystery, a mystery that wouldn't be solved for several more years...a mystery that has only led to more mysteries...

A year or so later, I heard of a group that was trying to raise funds to clear the brush that was obscuring an old cemetery off of Sixth Street.  The cemetery was reported to be the one used by African Americans in our neighborhood...

Last summer, at our Teen Summer Reading Program on archaeology, Chari Bostick, director of Grace Heritage Foundation came up after the program to speak with the presenter Chris Hill (my former archaeological crew chief).  She needed information about whom to contact with the state about preserving the old Sixth Street Cemetery, also known by the name Southern Hills.  She had been working to set up a foundation to house funds for preservation, and had managed to get the City of Gadsden to begin work on clearing the brush, but the machinery used to do the clearing was doing more harm than good, so she was back to working with groups of volunteers who were cutting and clearing by hand.  Chris made his recommendations to Ms. Bostick and, after the end of that evening, I promptly forgot about the cemetery, again.

It was only after our Civil Rights Unity Walk last month and my thoughts about the shared history of our community, a history that transcends skin color,  that the cemetery lost in the woods came back to mind.  How does a city cemetery become lost?  I think that a cemetery becomes lost only when the people who are buried there are considered not worth remembering by those who could do something about it.  Lots of things could be at play here...race, socioeconomics, who knows? Embarrassed that I had lived in our neighborhood for five years without visiting the cemetery, a cemetery that Eric had photographed during one of their work sessions, I put Sixth Street Cemetery on my list of things to do the Saturday following the Unity Walk.  And coincidentally, during work that week, I received a Facebook message from friend Bill Thornton saying that Bunk Richardson was buried in Sixth Street Cemetery because it happened to serve as the pauper's cemetery for the city at the time of Mr. Richardson's lynching...Bill, whom I originally knew from his covering our late 1990s archaeological digs in Calhoun County and, most importantly from his chilling five-part series written for the Gadsden Times in 2000 about Bunk Richardson. 

Eric and I visited the cemetery two weeks ago.  It was the first warm, blue-sky day that we've had in a long time. Yes, tombstones are missing, and crypts have been damaged, but a remarkable amount of work has been done under the direction of Ms. Bostick.  Eric and I hope to participate in future work sessions, and try to help in any way that we are able. 

Update:  Eric was kind enough to find these Gadsden Times articles, written in 2003 and 2008 about the cemetery...

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