Mary Whaley, Fourth (Formerly First) United Presbyterian Cemetery Preservation Project Organizer

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Where is this cemetery?

It’s in Mechanicsville, on what used to be Booker Street and is now called University.

How did you first get interested?

I was put on a committee at First United, and this was the only piece of property the congregation owned. Our primary task then was pretty minimal—maintaining it, keeping the grass mowed. But somehow I got interested in it, as old as it was, and it has sort of a pastoral, idyllic appearance. I thought, “This is a little jewel in the rough.” I thought I would work towards getting it nominated in the Historic Register. And we made some contacts with legal aid and design centers, to see if we could get some help.

How long ago was all this?

At least 12 years. What’s happened since is we’ve started working with the Mechanicsville community and Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation, and other people have come forth to join us. Our primary tasks now are trying to develop the site so it’s more appealing to visitors, and to get young people interested in the individuals who are buried there. There’s Laura Cansler, who opened the first school for blacks in the county, and the Becks, Ethel and James, who made the Beck Cultural Center their legacy. We’ve got a lot of history to share—we don’t want to limit it to African Americans. We want everybody to know about it, contribute to it.

Aren’t there some former slaves buried there?

I’m glad you reminded me. Andrew Johnson, this is when he was military governor of the state, released his slaves, and two ended up in Knoxville and are both buried in the cemetery.

Do you have any personal ties to the cemetery?

Only in that some of the deceased have descendants who continue to go to my church.

To volunteer or for more information, e-mail Carole Ann Borges at caroleann1@yahoo.com

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