Photo by Dan Andrews.
Sister LaTeta led the procession with song along cemetery paths lit by luminaries last Friday night.

For almost five years, students and faculty from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have been working with city and county officials, the community and members of the Knoxville Re-Animation Coalition to rehabilitate two historically and culturally important cemeteries in East Knoxville.

Last Friday, they celebrated the progress of a new “Community Passage,” 1,000 linear feet of pathways constructed throughout Odd Fellows Cemetery. It is a part of a two-cemetery project, which also includes Potters Field. This marks the first major step toward improving accessibility and stabilizing the cemeteries’ landscape, two primary aspects of their overall master plan.

The event began with a procession, guided by 500 luminaria for the number of volunteers who have worked on the project, led to Dr. Walter Hardy Memorial Park.

Singer Sister LaTeta performed and led the procession through the cemeteries. Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero spoke as well as faculty and members of the UT College of Architecture and Design and the Re-animation Coalition.

Odd Fellows Cemetery, which contains about 6,000 graves, was founded around 1880 as a burial ground for Knoxville’s African-American community. Potters Field, founded in 1850, was once designated for the city’s poor and has an estimated 18,000 graves.

When the project began in 2009, plot maps did not exist for those buried in the cemeteries and many of the markers were missing. The grounds were overgrown and the soil eroded by frequent floods. Access to the cemeteries also was limited, making visitation difficult.

Katherine Ambroziak, an assistant professor of architecture, leads the UT efforts. She is working with students, colleagues and the Re-animation Coalition to transform the cemeteries and the surrounding land into a place of pride. They have researched the cemetery grounds and produced land surveys, and they are establishing a plot map and database of those buried in the area, and a memorial landscape that is easy to navigate with markers and paths.

The Odd Fellows Cemetery restoration is one of the Re-animation Coalition’s inaugural projects and serves as its official introduction to the Knoxville community. Its mission is to educate and create wealth among Knoxville’s African-American community through projects that illuminate its past achievements.

“The Community Passage marks one step in a long-term vision in reclaiming the cemetery and building the community,” Ambroziak said. “Through the work of volunteers, the university and local government, we are working to establish a network of pathways that will grow over time to provide access to the beautiful and sacred lands of the cemetery.”

The latest progress was completed this summer, when volunteers, including more than 100 freshman participants in UT Ignite, helped to move over 250 tons of soil and stone donated by the city of Knoxville to make and widen the cemetery’s paths. They staked out the walk, placed guidelines and also designed the paths to be accessible to those with disabilities.

“Our goal was to construct the earthen foundations for a future hardscape walkway in the western portions of the cemetery,” Ambroziak said. “These will serve as raised walking paths that will provide easy and safe passage from north to south. No more walking on South Kyle Street and dodging cars. No more roots and puddles. We want to give back to this community that has taught us so much about pride and grace.”