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2 APSU departments help restore historic Mount Olive Cemetery

From Cumberland Drive, the seven acres dont look like much - an overgrown, wooded area where low hanging branches and tall weeds make it almost impossible to see inside.

Dr. Daniel Frederick, Austin Peay State University professor of geology, probably drove past the site hundreds of times over the years, never realizing that more than 1,300 people were buried beneath the trees. A few weeks ago, he made his first visit into this small forest and was amazed by what he saw.
From Cumberland Drive, the seven acres don't look like much - an overgrown, wooded area where low hanging branches and tall weeds make it almost impossible to see inside.

Dr. Daniel Frederick, Austin Peay State University professor of geology, probably drove past the site hundreds of times over the years, never realizing that more than 1,300 people were buried beneath the trees. A few weeks ago, he made his first visit into this small forest and was amazed by what he saw.

“It's incredible. It's absolutely incredible,” he said. “I've never seen a graveyard that looks like that. The graves are literally just packed in. You can't step without stepping on a grave.”

For more than a century, this neglected area was known as the Mount Olive Cemetery, and it provided a serene, final resting place for many of Clarksville's African-American residents. A new effort is now under way to clear out the debris and garbage surrounding the graves, and professors and students from two different APSU departments - geology and history — are among the volunteers helping to revive this historic cemetery.

“It's a site that needs to be maintained,” Frederick said. “It really does need to have some attention paid to it. There's historical significance there.”

On a warm spring morning last week, Geneva Bell, executive director and president of the Mt. Olive Historical Preservation Society, walked the grounds of the cemetery, pointing out the worn old headstone of freed slaves and black Civil War soldiers. She bent close to some of the markers, trying to make out names and dates.

“To me, these people buried here are the pioneers of Clarksville,” she said. “Some of them were born into slavery, but they're the ones that did the manual labor, from the bottom up. Clarksville would not be what it is today without them.”

The Preservation Society recently formed a partnership with the Hopkinsville, Ky., Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to restore the cemetery. The church, as part of its national service day, is hosting a community-wide cleanup on Saturday, April 24, but before the volunteers go to the cemetery, Frederick and a team of APSU geology students will visit the site to look for unmarked graves.

“We're going to do two things,” Frederick said. “One is we're going to do some GPR (ground penetrating radar) to see, particularly on the roads that exist, where the graves are. Most of them you don't need any radar. They're all sunken. The other thing we're going to do is we'll go and GPS the location of each of the headstones and record each one. One of the goals is to put this online.”

Aside from being a service project, Frederick said the work at the cemetery allows him to train his students on using complicated equipment, such as ground penetrating radar. Once their work is done, some 800 volunteers are expected to visit in the cemetery on April 24.

“We want to get it in pristine order,” Rosemary Klein, assistant director of public affairs for the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said. “There are some places that have a lot of brush. There are ravines with garbage in them.”

That's where Dr. David Nelson, assistant professor of history at APSU, and his group of students come in. Nelson plans to bring volunteers from the APSU History Club and the APSU Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society to the clean-up day.

“We'll be going in and doing the physical labor - cleaning it out, raking, pulling weeds, possibly getting in the ravine to clean some of the junk out,” he said.

Nelson is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but like Frederick, he sees this as an opportunity to do a service project while providing training for his students.

“This is historical preservation. This is what we do,” he said. “This kind of service project fits in perfectly with our organization.”

The work won't be easy. The ground is rippled with little hollows from where the earth has collapsed on graves and lichen grows over the worn, almost illegible names engraved on headstones. And, almost ironically, little purple forget-me-not flowers grow thick across the cemetery that was forgotten. But APSU history student David Britton said these are common challenges for historic sites across the state, and the clean-up day will help prepare students for restoring other important places.

“The cemetery itself is a really unique situation,” he said. “It offers, I think, a really good opportunity for both geosciences and history students, especially students who are going into any type of resource preservation.”

The April 24 volunteer day is geared at getting as much of the brush and debris removed from the area as possible, but the cemetery's historic preservation society said the work needs to continue beyond that day to turn this wooded cemetery into a viable, historic site.

“The ultimate goal is to bring the cemetery up to where it can be a tourist attraction, so people will be able to know this is here and you can come and see history,” Bell said.

Anyone interested in volunteering on April 24 is encouraged to contact Nelson at 221-7920 or nelsond@apsu.edu. -- Charles Booth