Community members trying restore forgotten cemetery - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Community members trying restore forgotten cemetery

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

A forgotten Chattanooga cemetery has turned into a frightening  place and some people are trying to restore it. 

Pleasant Gardens Cemetery was chartered in 1890 and opened in 1891; it closed in 1970. Some of the city's most significant African American men and women are buried there. Pleasant Gardens was once the only exclusively black cemetery in the state of Tennessee. It was 12 acres when it opened, but today it's 22 acres with several thousand graves. We're told more than a thousand are unmarked, and local historian and principal, LaFrederick Thirkill says his great-grandfather, Willis Orr, is one of them. 

"He was all about helping and all about serving the community. I believe that's where I got that urge from and so after learning that he was buried here it was almost like he was beckoning me to come and be a part of this and in someway continue his legacy of serving others," said Thirkill. 

No headstones. No markings. Tree limbs outline a group of graves in pleasant gardens cemetery off Shallowford Road. Many are sinking and some are coming out of the ground. It's one of two places in the cemetery Thirkill says his great-grandfather could be buried, but finding his grave has been impossible.

As Thirkill walked us through the grounds, he pointed out a group of graves behind a barbed wire fence where a "private property" sign was posted. The graves were covered by trees and shrubs. As Thirkill explained, Pleasant Gardens was more than just a cemetery. 

"It was a cultural hotspot to come and enjoy a Saturday or Sunday with your family and ironically a place where people were buried. It was also a time where people gathered and celebrated life together." 

It's hard to describe the the feelings that overcome you while inside the cemetery. Thirkill describes it as sacred, but the people buried there also make it historic. 

Among them is Chattanooga's first black music teacher, Lula F. Kennedy, Dr. Thomas William Haigler, one of Chattanooga's first black surgeons, and Lionel Richie's great-grandfather, John Louis Brown who was a pharmacy worker and cemetery caretaker. 

But the grounds also highlight the city's dark past.

Ed Johnson is buried there. He was lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge after being accused of raping a white woman. Andrew and LeRoy Wright, two of the four Chattanoogan's falsely accused of raping two white women in the well-known Scottsboro case, are also buried there. 

"These people made significant contributions to life and to allow them to lay in such disarray is disrespectful," said Thrikill. 

Pleasant Gardens was sold three years after it opened. It fell into the hands of many owners who let it go. Organizations and volunteers like Thirkill tried to help.

"When we first came up we had to wade our way through the garbage and now even though it's not fully restored the condition that it's in now is much much better than it was when we started in 1999," said Thirkill. 

Thirkill attempted to make the cemetery a public land trust more than a decade ago so the city could care for it, but the owners wouldn't sign over the property. The cemetery is not registered with the state because it is closed, so it has not been inspected. 

Thirkill and nearby neighbors take it on to care for the property, but Thirkill knows they can't do it alone.

"We have got to consciously make sure that the land is not encroached upon and that more people become aware of it and I think that if we do that then we can continue to think of ways that we can ensure that the cemetery is preserved," said Thirkill. 

Channel 3 has reached out to the owner of the cemetery, but have not heard back. 

As far the future of the cemetery, we're told the city plans to include pleasant gardens in this year's Martin Luther King, Jr. day of service.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance says the district attorney could take up the "lack of maintenance" issue in court.

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