Knoxville’s first dedicated African-American cemetery, which was founded in 1880, is in a process of reclamation. Its newest project is a series of art installations: “Community Pause.”
Odd Fellows Cemetery is a six-acre space lined in old-growth trees, and Knoxville's cemetery reclamation program has been working to recapture its potential.
Katherine Ambroziak is the lead designer and coordinator of the Reclamation Initiative. She said that that the cemetery should be a place where the community can “gather, tell stories, and reflect.”
Ambroziak, working with the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition (KRC), started the organization’s first project in 2009: a cemetery survey. Teaming up with the East Tennessee Community Design Center and ACA AmeriCorps, they documented headstones, plot markers, and fragments. This part of the project is ongoing and now involves UT’s Anthropology Graduate Student Association.
However, the project’s focus grew from simple rehabilitation to reclamation.
Ambroziak said that the project emphasizes identity and community-level activism.
“I believe a great accomplishment is that we've been able to involve such a diverse group of people and bring them into conversation about the community, the importance of identity and public space, and how grassroots efforts can impact change,” Ambroziak said.
The first implemented project into the cemetery was Community Passage, implemented in 2013. The goal of this project was to develop a network of raised earthen walkways that provide safe access and link various parts of the neighborhood through key areas of the cemetery.
The project continues every August through UT’s Ignite Serves program, and various groups join throughout the year to help build and reinforce it.
At the moment, the initiative is working on a sister project to Community Passage called Community Pause. The purpose of Community Pause, a series of art installations that would be implemented in the cemetery, is to encourage members of the community to rest and engage with the historic landscape, gather in conversation, and claim their cultural heritage. Thanks to Community Passage, people can now walk through the cemetery – but Community Pause would give people a reason to stay there.
Stephen Scruggs, former president and cofounder of KRC, said that the initiative has brought the long-invisible space back into the public eye.
“I walked past this cemetery on my way home from school over fifty years ago. I founded the program, but I'm also one of the people in the community who learned history that I may have gone my entire life not having ever known.”
Scruggs said that the project has been an emotional one.
“I feel pride in my community for the history I've learned, I feel disappointment in the school system for not having taught me this history when I was young, I feel joy for being a part of the illumination and restoration of my neighborhood,” he said.
The KRC holds volunteer sessions throughout the year, including MLK Day of Service, Ignite Serves and ProjectGRAD. It also hosts individual service days for community groups, student organizations, businesses and church groups.