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Honoring the past, shaping the future: APSU highlights health disparities at Mount Olive Cemetery

By: Ethan Steinquest April 29, 2024


Phyllis Smith, the historian for the Mt. Olive Cemetery Historical Preservation Society, leads a tour for public health professionals from Austin Peay State University and the surrounding community. | Photo by Ethan Steinquest

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - Austin Peay State University’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program recently hosted a groundbreaking professional development program at the historic Mt. Olive Cemetery to address health disparities and promote antiracism in public health.

The program was funded through Austin Peay’s GOVing Tuesday initiative and hosted in partnership with the Mt. Olive Cemetery Historical Preservation Society (MOCHPS). It allowed 20 students and local health professionals to learn the stories of African Americans interred at the cemetery, clean gravestones and discuss racism’s influence on medical outcomes.


APSU Director for Community Care and Standards Claudia Alonzo cleans Ann Stewart Cobb’s gravestone in Mt. Olive Cemetery. | Photo by Ethan Steinquest

“What I hope people take away from this is that beyond words and reading, action is such a powerful way to show others your love,” said Dr. Tyler Nolting, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance and MOCHPS member. “Even when people are no longer with us, serving and honoring them after their death shows they’re not beyond our love - and in my opinion, it’s an antiracist act to do that for those interred at Mt. Olive.”

Nolting also collaborated with Dr. Kadi Bliss, a professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, to design a 12-lesson curriculum that delves deeper into the cemetery’s history.

“Each lesson is a storytelling experience through the lens of public health history and concepts our students are learning,” Bliss said. “We hope it motivates and inspires people to be antiracist as they work with their communities to incorporate strategies, and it's set up so that it can be implemented in the workplace.”

The curriculum explores how healthcare disparities affected historical figures, from United States Colored Troops veteran Barry Gupton to trailblazing nurse Frances Reed Elliott Davis. It also unpacks modern-day issues like mass incarceration, police brutality and the impact of COVID-19 on African American communities.

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Those who attended “Mt. Olive Cemetery: A Training Ground for Racism Prevention in Public Health” took home a 12-lesson curriculum with more information on those interred at the cemetery. | Contributed photo

“We learned about this last year in one of my classes, but this was a way to go deeper into the subject,” said Destiny Eldridge, a senior health and human performance major. “A lot of people in this cemetery died of preventable health issues, and now we have programs and practices to try and keep that from happening … [but] learning a lot of history is very important from a public health standpoint to make a difference and prepare for the future.”

MOCHPS President Nick Nicholson said providing historical context is especially important because issues like poverty continue to impact minority populations.

“From a historical perspective, it shows that we've been on the negative side of those disparities,” he said. “Hopefully, if we inform people about that, more attention can be placed on minorities and people who don't have the wherewithal to afford healthcare as others do.”

During a series of tours provided through the program, MOCHPS Historian Phyllis Smith emphasized how many children in the cemetery died because their families couldn’t pay for medical treatment.

“I talked about a young lady who died at 1 year old, and what killed her was basically a diet deficient in protein,” she said. “A lot of these people couldn’t afford medical care, and what I told the people I was talking to at that particular grave was that if you meet somebody who says healthcare is a privilege, not a right, hit them over the head with the story of a 1-year-old child who didn’t have to die.”

Penny Greene, the recreation programmer for Clarksville Parks & Recreation, was among those on the tour and said she was also affected by hearing about young African Americans who died from slave labor conditions.

“It floored me that the majority of the people here died before they were 40 years old, and a lot of them died before 1900 because of all the laborious and back-breaking work that they had to do in their lives,” she said. “This is an amazing program, and I’m hoping to be able to take it back and use it in our Summer Youth Program.”

Smith noted that African American laborers built many historic homes throughout Clarksville in addition to working in the city’s tobacco warehouses and fields.

“When I tell their stories, that's Clarksville history,” she said. “They lived under really repressive laws, and they managed to make lives, raise kids and contribute to what Clarksville is today. They went through a lot of adversity, and I consider them victorious heroes.”

Members of the APSU community clean gravestones at Mt. Olive Cemetery.

Ja’Nya Fields, a senior health and human performance major, said hearing the stories of the people interred at Mt. Olive inspired her to honor their legacies in her own career.

“I appreciated learning the different backgrounds of these people and making connections,” she said. “Preventable issues caused them to die, and it encourages us as public health professionals to be aware of any health concerns and take them seriously.”

Nolting said the event’s success was possible thanks to contributions from MOCHPS founder Geneva Bell and former president Mike Taliento, who worked for years to develop the cemetery into what it is today.

“There’s been a large community effort building around Mt. Olive since the start of the MOCHPS almost 20 years ago,” Nolting said. “My hope is that these stories and experiences can be shared with others in the community and that people will be inspired to help out in the future.”