The Knoxville Reanimation Coalition is breathing life into Knoxville's history.
Where others see a neglected graveyard, the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition sees a piece of land rich in culture and history. With the help of the City of Knoxville, UT students and faculty, and various organizations, the coalition is restoring two historic cemeteries in East Knoxville.
Mayor Madeline Rogero said she fully supports the ongoing project.
"They are turning a once blighted area back into a valuable neighborhood and community resource," Rogero said.
The founders of the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition, Stephen Scruggs and William C. Dorsey, were both born and raised in Knoxville. As young children, the two passed a cemetery everyday as they walked to and from school.
In his later years, Dorsey became aware that the burial sites of Confederate soldiers were well maintained while the burial sites of African Americans were not. This observation, along with a profound respect for the power of history, led Dorsey and Scruggs to begin the Odd Fellow Cemetery and Potters Field Rehabilitation Project.
Odd Fellows Cemetery was declared a burial site for African Americans in the late 1800s. Potter's Field, a burial site for the poor, was started in 1850. The cemeteries contain 6,000 and 18,000 graves, respectively.
Years of neglect of the cemetery grounds left the grass overgrown and grave markers missing. Katherine Ambroziak, a leader of UT's involvement in the project and assistant professor of architecture at UT, said she feels this neglect undermines the purpose of cemeteries.
"Cemeteries are inherently places to memorialize and commemorate," Ambroziak said. "But because both Odd Fellows Cemetery and Potters Field have been abandoned and have gone through a state of deterioration, they no longer serve these purposes."
The goal of the rehabilitation project is to improve the physical landscape of and bring life to the Odd Fellow and Potters Field cemeteries while highlighting the achievements of the African-American community.
In 2008, members of the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition contacted Ambroziak, who has a special interest in memorial development and design. She accepted an offer to join the initiative and became the lead architectural designer and coordinator.
"I sincerely value their mission," she said. "Having pride in one's community, its history, its traditions, its culture ... these teach us a lot about who we are now. And the landscapes that support this history really need to support that pride."
After approximately five years, those involved with the project are celebrating progress. Five hundred volunteers have worked to refurbish the landscapes of the cemeteries and to improve accessibility. UT architecture students constructed a cemetery wall, the City of Knoxville repaved an adjacent street and various volunteers began constructing a walkway.
Plans are in place to continue the walkway throughout the cemeteries. This long-term portion of the project is known as the Community Passage Project.
Rogero said she is enthusiastic about the progress that has been made.
"I am really impressed with the dedication of Stephen Scruggs and the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition," Rogero said. "They are reclaiming and restoring important parts of our local history. The work they have done at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in collaboration with Professor Katherine Ambroziak and her students honors the past, and it helps current and future generations connect with those who came before."