In an unassuming corner of East Knoxville, dense brush and overgrowth cover the ground of Knoxville’s oldest African American cemetery. The foliage is so dense, in fact, that many of the residents that live nearby aren’t even aware it exists. The cemetery is known as Citizens Cemetery, and it is the final resting place of an estimated 5,000-6,000 African American freedmen and slaves, with burials dating back to the 1830s.
Tatianna Griffin, a master’s student in the Department of Anthropology, is working to aid in the recovery and restoration of the cemetery, which has been suffering decades of neglect. Her work seeks to not only be a catalyst for restoration of the space, but also to gain a greater understanding of the need for care of Black sacred cultural spaces within the community.
In most cases, there is no official record or database, so it is difficult to know how many of these historic Black cemeteries are scattered across the country. Like the communities they represented, African American burial grounds were marginalized, literally forced to the periphery of town. Over time, these cemeteries were neglected by local governments and erased by development, leaving just the descendants and local communities responsible for maintaining them.
Many local historians believe that Citizens Cemetery may not only be the oldest, but also the largest in Knoxville. Seeing the current state of disrepair inspired Griffin to take action.
“The neglect this space has suffered at the hands of systems of power is heart-wrenching. When I saw sunken graves, destroyed headstones, and vandalized and desecrated graves, I knew that I needed to do something,” explained Griffin.
She is currently working with the local community to gather support for the restoration of the space. Not only does she hope to recover the physical space by clearing the overgrowth and repairing grave sites, but she also hopes to learn more about how volunteers learn as they engage in restoration work, and how to increase community engagement.
Providing a voice for the deceased is an important part of her research and inspired her choice of graduate studies.
“I have spent most of my graduate training in forensic anthropology. For a long time, I wanted to work in forensics. My dad was a homicide detective when I was growing up, and he still is. I was exposed to the medicolegal system at such a young age, and I loved it. I spent several years studying human decomposition and forensic anthropology at UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center,” Griffin noted.
By chance, Griffin tagged along with a friend that was volunteering at Citizens Cemetery. While there, she had the chance to discuss the space and how that work might fit into a master’s thesis. She decided to switch the focus of her research from forensic anthropology to cultural anthropology.
“That’s when I realized I wanted to do work that was directly impactful for my community. I knew I needed to do work that was transformative,” Griffin said. “My research needs to actively change how people think about and approach racial justice and the embodiment of Blackness. Pursuing this project gave me the opportunity to give voice to the knowledge I have learned in my forensic training.”
Less than ten percent of the graves at Citizens Cemetery have headstones or markers, so Griffin also plans to conduct archival research to gain a better understanding of who is buried at Citizens and any connections that may still exist within the descendant community.
“I hope to unmask the voices of those buried in the cemetery. The purpose of this project is to address the problem of how the Knoxville Black Community experiences ongoing erasure as systems of power continue to perpetuate institutional and interpersonal discrimination based on race,” Griffin explained.
Across the country, grassroots efforts to restore historic Black cemeteries are gaining momentum. The United States is currently in a time of racial reckoning, and these efforts are now getting support on a national level. According to congress.gov, “the African American Burial Grounds Network Act directs the Department of the Interior to establish the U.S. African-American Burial Grounds Network within the National Park Service.”
The bipartisan legislation unanimously passed Senate vote in December 2020 and has moved on to the House of Representatives. The bill would result in a national network of historic Black cemeteries, as well as well as making grant funding available for research and restoration. This effort could result in the recovery of these historic sites in an effort to present a more complete picture of American history.
The scope of Griffin’s thesis work will restore only a portion of Citizens Cemetery, and she plans to continue that work after graduation. She also plans to continue doing research that is beneficial to African American communities.
“This project allows me to apply my forensic anthropology training to a real situation where human dignity of enslaved Africans and African Americans stands unprotected and vulnerable. I want to make my knowledge and expertise useful to Knoxville’s Black community in their fight against systems of power that marginalize and erase their presence as they try to reclaim a large part of our history.”