Smyrna hosts dedication ceremony for historic Black cemetery

Doreen Smalls at podium with Mt. Zion Cemetery sign in backgroundDoreen Smalls of King's Chapel AME (Photo by Arielle Robinson)

By Arielle Robinson

Community members, city councilors, faith leaders, and historic residents gathered for the Mount Zion rededication ceremony that Smyrna held Sunday afternoon at the recently restored historic Black cemetery.

The cemetery is along Hawthorne Avenue and is where formerly enslaved people and some of their descendants are buried.

The city took on the project of restoring the cemetery around 2019.

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The cemetery was previously overgrown with weeds and in great disrepair.

Now, thanks to the work of city officials and employees, local residents, and the Historic Oakland Cemetery Foundation, the cemetery has been restored along with a new archway that marks the entrance.

The city has been able to find evidence of 177 possible burials at Mount Zion cemetery.

Councilman Travis Lindley said Sunday that four more graves were uncovered that day.

“Had we been standing here three short years ago, we would have been unable to see anything,” Lindley said. “It was much like the wooded area across the street but thicker with several large downed trees. We wouldn’t have been able to see the 65 above-ground markers and fieldstones placed here by families to identify their loved ones as their final resting spots.”

Lindley said the restoration and preservation of the cemetery could not have been done without the perseverance of the families of those buried in Mount Zion cemetery.

“I think that’s really the message of the day,” the councilman said. “We stand here together on a proud day and have much dignity and pride as we move forward.”

Lindley thanked everyone who was involved in restoring the cemetery.

Lisa Castleberry, a resident of the historically Black Smyrna neighborhood of Rose Garden, thanked the city for making the cemetery a “beautiful” place.

“This is the first time that Rose Garden, Davenport Town, and the City of Smyrna have come together to celebrate Black history,” Castleberry said. “We are making progress in Smyrna, Black lives do matter.”

The original Mount Zion Baptist Church was founded by formerly enslaved people in 1877. The cemetery was at the back of the church, a city website on the cemetery says.

The current Mount Zion Baptist Church was moved to its location down the road from the original in 1949.

Congregation members of the current Mount Zion Baptist Church and King’s Chapel AME were present Sunday.

The Rev. Doreen Smalls from King’s Chapel lead a prayer while Annie Mae Dukes sang Amazing Grace, eventually joined in by her nephew and the crowd.

Dukes, an 88-year-old resident, is a longtime Smyrna resident. She said she was baptized at the original church building long before it burned in a fire. She also said she used to take care of Lindley when he was a child.

Dukes attends Mount Zion Baptist and said she has multiple relatives buried at the cemetery.

On Sunday, the city by chance uncovered the gravestone of Dukes’ grandmother.

Dukes said it was “wonderful” to attend the ceremony and talked a bit about her connection to the community.

“I remember was King’s Chapel was built, I remember when Rose Garden Hills was started,” Dukes said. “I remember when Greater Zion Hill church started out…I am one of the oldest members [of Mount Zion], there’s only two of us original members living. That’s me and my cousin.”

Mayor Derek Norton was unable to attend the ceremony so the mayor asked Councilman Tim Gould to say a few words.

“To me, the former overgrowth and disrepair of the cemetery represent the neglect of the past, where many in our African American community were not an integral part of our city,” Gould said. “The rejuvenation of this space represents the change taking place right now, here in Smyrna. Regardless of race, ethnicity, economic station, or if you’re part of the LGBT community, all residents need to feel and know the important part of our greater Smyrna family.”

Gould pointed out that the city has passed a non-discrimination ordinance and said that with the help of Councilman Lewis Wheaton, the city’s celebration of Black History Month continues to expand.

“We just completed yesterday the first-ever racial trust-building initiative training seminar right here in Smyrna,” Gould said. “The facilitator-led forum is a powerful teaching tool to strengthen and build community bonds communication-wise between groups of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Gould said similar additional classes will be held in the near future.

Wheaton said multiple events in honor of Black History Month are occurring at the library and the city also looks forward to its Juneteenth celebrations in the coming months.

“As we all know, change doesn’t happen as fast as we all want it,” Gould said. “It takes hard work, perseverance, and great care to continue the positive changes happening today and to keep Smyrna a great place to live for all.”

To get an in-depth look at the history of Mount Zion cemetery and the process it took to restore it, please click here.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She is the current president of the university’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and former editor at the KSU Sentinel.  She enjoys music, reading poetry and non-fiction books and collecting books and records. She enjoys all kinds of music and reading poetry and non-fiction books.

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