“We wanted to make sure these old gravesites were taken care of,” said County Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “Once upon a time, that was somebody’s family.”
Until recently, Macon County hadn’t had an official cemetery board. But a project by an aspiring Eagle Scout to fix up an abandoned black cemetery brought the issue to the forefront.
High school student Andrew Baldwin found the historic New Hope Cemetery while exploring in the woods near his home in Franklin. He was able to turn the cemetery into a restoration project, drawing from plenty of volunteers and hours of sweat to reset gravestones, clear brush and a build a proper trail.
As part of his project, Baldwin was also able to identify one of the descendants of people who were buried there, an African-American woman in her 90s, and bring her to see the cemetery.
But New Hope’s Cemetery’s revival story is not the norm. Many old burial sites are not recovered and restored.
“After it grows up so deep and the foliage falls on it for so many years, it might go unfound forever,” said Beale.
After establishing the cemetery board in July, commissioners chose Baldwin and Barbara McRae to serve as two of the five members. The remaining spots will most likely be appointed this month. McRae is the former editor of the Franklin Press and a self-described Macon County history buff.
She said the first order of work would be identifying as many of these forgotten cemeteries as possible and keeping a record of them for the public. There already exists a reference book enumerating 150 historic cemeteries in Macon County, which will be a good starting point.
But many locations of abandoned cemeteries only exist in the memories of locals or distant descendants of those buried at former family plots.
“As far as the ones that are unknown, we will have to rely on the public to inform us,” McRae said. “People in little communities know that on top of this hill there used to be a graveyard.”
The cemetery board could act as the organizer of maintenance and restoration projects and the go-to resource for developers. Beside the historic value of documenting old graveyards, it could also be a useful resource for developers. As the rural areas of the county are encroached upon by development, the chance that excavators run into human remains increases.
Knowing what sites to avoid ahead of time is better for both parties — the living and the dead.
“Our role would be to say here’s a little family cemetery with five graves and we need to find some way of surveying and protecting it,” McRae said. “You can’t just say ‘oh well, we’ll cover them over’ — there’s a historical value and respect that is due to human remains.”