Pleasant Forest Cemetery is a hard one to miss. It’s enormous, for one thing, and it’s on a well-traveled road. I’ve driven by it many times and it’s been on my list to visit for awhile. Occasionally my graveyard trips are serendipitous and unplanned, but for a place this large, I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to explore.
I visited over a year ago, and maybe it’s because I’m expecting some unpleasantness that I’ve held off writing about it for so long. But I’ll get to that.
First of all, the good stuff. And it’s really, really good stuff. The cemetery is immaculate, with obvious efforts to clean and repair stones.
This is an historic cemetery, established over 200 years ago, making it one of the oldest in the area. And the people who run it are obviously cognizant of and proud of its rich history. This cemetery even has its own website! The history of the place is recorded there in great detail, as are the names of most of the folks buried there. Here’s the earliest grave:
And there are other graves just as primitive, the hand-carved names rendered illegible by time.
There are many that you can read, though, even some very old ones.
If you read the inscriptions, you will have seen that some of the stones carry names important in Knoxville history. One of the things I loved about this cemetery is how it appreciates and showcases history–even its own.
But this is also very much a living cemetery, with an assortment of interesting and beautiful memorials to folks who died relatively recently, and whose families are still regularly visiting and decorating their graves.
Pleasant Forest is large, hilly, well-kept, and beautiful, as I’ve said.
But there’s another part of this cemetery’s story. In fact, there’s another part of this cemetery.
The part I’ve been showing you is on the right side of Concord Road heading south. It’s large, and bordered with a combination of wooden and wrought iron fencing and stone walls.
But if you cross the busy road, you’ll see another side of this cemetery.
Here’s what it looks like.
The contrast to the pristine conditions on the other side of the road couldn’t be stronger. As I walked the grounds I was unable to make sense of what I was seeing–the exposed red earth, the tumbling stones, the un-raked ground. And as I read the names I began to get a sinking feeling. Surely this couldn’t be what it was beginning to look like–an African-American section of Pleasant Forest looking for all the world like an ad for separate and unequal?
But that’s what it is. Here’s what a little online research turned up: “Pleasant Forest Cemetery is an old cemetery, founded in 1796. It lies on both sides of Concord Road about one-half mile south of Kingston Pike. Most of the cemetery receives some maintenance. I am told that State of Tennessee provides money for cutting the grass. The cemetery functions as two cemeteries. The portion east of Concord Road and the southeast corner of the portion west of Concord Road are a black cemetery. The white portion of the cemetery which receives state maintenance funds was fenced early in 1989. The black section was fenced out and appears [in 1989] to receive little to no maintenance.”
Now, the black section that’s physically part of the larger cemetery isn’t treated any differently from the rest of it. I am at a loss to explain why no one is caring for the other section. Look, I KNOW maintaining cemeteries is a labor of love and largely taken on, in the case of historic graveyards, by volunteers. But this is part of the same cemetery, under the same ownership now, according to publicly available records, whatever the case may have been originally. What excuse can there be for ignoring this part of it so completely (as of March 2016, when I was last there)? If the excuse is that it doesn’t receive state maintenance funds and the other side does, that doesn’t comfort me much.
I expect publishing this post will lead to my enlightenment on these matters as it often has in the past. I hope it will not also lead to unpleasantness. As always in these pieces, I’m just describing what I see, and what I’m seeing looks bad.
For more of my graveyard musings, click here.
You should know that arround the turn of the century Knox County decided that Concord Road needed to be widened and should have a sidewalk. Therefore, black people were “respectfully” dug up, taken to the University of Tennessee anthropology department, examined and then stored in one or more drawers. Despite state law governing the relocation of graves those people are still in the UT anthropology department.
That’s just terrible. Thank you for adding that information to the story of this cemetery.