Historic cemetery restored, as a sign of “change with Smyrna”

Feb. 27—EDITOR’S NOTE — This month, MDJ publishes a series of stories celebrating Black History Month. This article details the February 20 rededication of Mount Zion Cemetery in Smyrna.

SMYRNA — Three years ago, standing on Hawthorne Avenue with your back to New Smyrna Cemetery, you would have seen a small forest nestled between postwar single-family homes.

Beneath the canopy, brambles and weeds, however, were 65 unmarked tombstones and fieldstones. Ground-penetrating radar would later reveal the site was the final resting place of 177 African Americans, some of whom were former slaves, all members of one of the city’s oldest churches, Mt. Zion First. Baptist.

Under blue skies, several dozen people gathered at the cemetery to celebrate its restoration, described by city officials as a sign of a new, more progressive Smyrna, “proud to claim this monumental and sacred land”, in the words of Councilman Travis Lindley.

The vegetation has been cleared, the tombstones cleaned. A new fence was installed, as well as a new entrance designed by a local artist specializing in ironwork. And an interactive webpage has been created to tell the story of the cemetery, the people buried there, and the restoration process.

The Mount Zion Congregation was founded by former slaves in 1877, according to the webpage. Its members eventually built a church on Hawthorne Avenue, adjacent to the land that would become its cemetery.

In 1949 the church moved to its present location at the corner of Hawthorne and Davenport streets. New churches would later move into the building that Mount Zion had vacated, but they “mainly left the upkeep of the cemetery to the distant Mount Zion congregation and the families of the deceased,” the webpage says. “For many, money and resources were scarce, and land eventually fell into oblivion.”

A few years ago, Mia Dodson, who grew up in a neighborhood near the cemetery, buried her grandmother in Atlanta. But her son wonders, “How come we didn’t bury your grandmother next to my great-grandfather?” she called back after the ceremony last week.

Dodson asked his mother, who told him about Mount Zion Cemetery. It was the first time Dodson had heard of the cemetery where her grandfather and great-grandfather were buried, and in 2019 she came to visit.

“It was in very poor condition. Some stones had been turned over,” she said.

After making a few calls—to the city, to a state official, to a reporter—the city began work to restore the long-abandoned cemetery.

Trees and foliage were cleared, the fence and entrance were installed, and Ashley Shares, director of preservation at the historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, was brought in to restore the headstones. Ground-penetrating radar was used to determine exactly how many people had been buried there.

Among them are the grandparents of Jimmy Moss, 68, who helped his aunt, Annie Mae Dukes, lead a rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the rededication ceremony.

Afterward, walking among the headstones, Moss recalled helping clean headstones as a child and said restoring the cemetery “meant a lot.”

Councilman and mayor’s professional team, Tim Gould, said the city’s efforts to restore the cemetery were a sign of the “change taking place in Smyrna”, change evidenced by the recently passed non-discrimination ordinance by the city, its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and a “racial confidence-building initiative” that the city launched the same weekend.

“To me, the overgrowth and decay of the cemetery represents the neglect of the past, where many members of our African-American community were not an integral part of our city,” he said. “Regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status or if you are part of the LGBT community, all residents should feel and know that they are part of our great Smyrna family.”

James and Pamela Teague, who moved to Smyrna 40 years ago, agreed.

“I told my wife that we have to go out there and support this, because our history has been ignored and twisted for so long, that I’m just glad to see it’s…preserved, even from a little way like this,” James Teague said.

“It’s important to the whole community, and I think that’s proven by who’s been here today,” said Pamela Teague, referring to the multiracial group who came to celebrate the restoration. “And I loved some of the comments that some of the speakers made earlier, about really honoring diversity and coming together and working to be the kind of welcoming city we all want to live in.”

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