Among the layers of fallen dead leaves and lean, twisted trees were heaps of wilted flowers, an empty root beer bottle, pebbles, and small trinkets. A weathered sandstone marker rises from the varied pile inscribed with five letters: SALLY.
Sally, an enslaved person in the 19th century, is buried in East Mountain Cemetery in Fayetteville. Around and beyond Sally’s grave are yellow and red plastic flags marking where archaeologists believe 80 to 100 former slaves are buried, as well as sturdy bricks thought to be makeshift headstones. Unlike Sally, these few existing headstones are completely blank, with no inscriptions.
As for Sally, the Northwest Arkansas African American Heritage Association shared that “[she] was an enslaved woman sold by Lodawick Brodie to David Walker in 1843 when she was 45,” says NWA-AAHA founder and former director Sharon Killian. The rest of her story and the details of those she shares her final resting places are mysteries waiting to be uncovered.
Until 2014, efforts to tell the stories of these individuals had been buried with their bodies. However, when the NWA-AAHA received the deed to East Mountain Cemetery, opportunities to illuminate those lives presented themselves.
“Until our involvement, nothing was said in our local culture about black people in East Mountain,” Killian says. “This silence only served to obliterate the people who created the riches of Northwest Arkansas with their very lives.”
Now the association is working to find, record and start the conversation about former slaves buried in East Mountain Cemetery through revitalization efforts that will make the cemetery a site of learning and culture, Killian said.
The nonprofit has no fundraising activities planned at this time, said NWA-AAHA’s Stephanie Conway. There is, however, a donation button for the project on the association’s website. It costs the NWA-AAHA $3,000 a year just to maintain the cemetery landscape. Long-term goals, such as iron fences, gravestone restoration and memorial art, each require $20,000 independently, Conway says.
Former slaves at East Mountain Cemetery are typically buried in east/west depressions, Killian says. Sometimes burial sites create rows, sometimes they don’t. Part of the graves are marked with bricks laid in a square where the person’s head would rest, and these are located outside the fenced plots of the slave owners. Other graves were marked with stones, which are now littered.
A few yards west of Sally stands the David Walker Grounds, where the former Senator (1806-1879) and his family are buried with tall and elaborate headstones surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Separated by a narrow gravel road, Walker’s lot sits a few yards uphill from Fayetteville Confederate Cemetery, where Civil War Confederate soldiers are buried in neat rows surrounded by a beautiful stone wall. However, East Mountain Cemetery predates the Confederate Cemetery.
The Confederate Cemetery is maintained by the Southern Memorial Association. Prior to 2014, East Mountain Cemetery and David Walker Grounds were owned by the Wade family. In the early 1970s, Lynn Wade and her father, who was a lawyer and senator, purchased the land. They were initially approached by a New York resident with a connection to the Walker family who asked the Wades to help him sell the property. The Wades advertised the land, but they couldn’t find any buyers. The Wades bought the land as a home after an attempted sale failed.
“It was very frustrating over the years trying to find a scout troop, a church group and different people to do the housework… Basically, for the 50 years we owned it, I was busy trying to find a nonprofit to take it on,” Wade says.
The locations of the sites, as a whole, are a juxtaposition. Killian says she hopes the future of East Mountain Cemetery will be “beautiful, welcoming to everyone, not Confederate” and that it will help “promote truth and critical thinking.”
“East Mountain Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery both happen to be located in the historic African-American neighborhood along Willow and Spring streets and in what is now part of the Washington-Willow neighborhood,” Killian adds.
The University of Arkansas Landscape Architecture Program is working with the NWA-AAHA to restore the cemetery with “the humanity of African Americans” in mind, Killian says. Beyond restoration, the program develops community-centered design ideas for the site.
Addressing major drainage issues caused by the cemetery’s steep slope is the first course of action, says NWA-AAHA’s Sharida Holloway.
“We have new ideas every day, but there are also irrigation issues at the cemetery,” says Holloway. “Once we’ve taken care of that or figured that out, we can move on to phase two, but it would be counterproductive to put something in or install something now because there’s a lot of erosion in Classes.”
Landscape architecture students provided drainage mitigation ideas and information for the NWA-AAHA after conducting site surveys. Drainage may come from homes higher up the hill on which the cemetery sits, says landscape architecture student Jess Shearman.
“The drainage at the site was ridiculous to figure out,” Shearman says. “It was terrible. You can literally see ruts several feet deep just from the water.”
Similar to human interference, weather and animal activity, drainage has the power to disrupt burial sites or methodically placed objects, such as bricks, essential to understanding what’s in the cemetery, Shearman says. “We were terrified because the survey maintenance team had to mark where everything was: every tree, every mountain, every rock, everything, so here we were and wondered how many bodies we could walk through without even the knowledge. “
“Typically, markers for slaves were more ephemeral than what we would consider graveyard markers,” says Jama Grove, a Ph.D. in history and works as an assistant professor at Centenary University.
In contrast, burial practices in the white community focused on perpetuating the status and wealth of individuals and beyond their death, Grove explains. Slaves did not experience the same privileges, nor did they have the resources to provide similar memorials. Burials were much more performative in the moment for slaves than in the future, Grove says.
“You see a lot of practices that cross poverty lines, regardless of race, of fixing a particular stone or a particularly prominent tree as what we might consider a tombstone,” Grove said. “But you also see a lot of things like simple wooden markers that just wouldn’t survive.”
The lack of preserved headstones at East Mountain Cemetery prompted methods, including dowsing, to search and locate unmarked graves. The Wade family spearheaded the dowsing initiative.
Dowsing is a popular practice of loosely holding two sticks or rods, walking around an area, and waiting for the two sticks to intersect, creating an “X,” says Anne Marie Martin, Ph.D. in history, specializing in the history of death and burial, and is an assistant professor at Catawba College. The crossing rods are thought to represent a line of water or wells.
“It’s 100% popular belief, but it’s worked enough in the past that some people still choose to do it,” Martin says. “I mean, I could guess that if you operate on that assumption, you might think you find an anomaly in the ground for a burial.”
Dowsing is typically used to identify groundwater; however, some researchers are considering dowsing for unmarked graves, and successful cases have been reported. Small flags around the cemetery represent plots that dowsers and archaeologists believe someone was buried.
Volunteers visit the cemetery to clear brush, mow the lawn and maintain the space. At the beginning of the project, the extreme overgrowth of the site required weekly volunteer efforts. However, volunteer events are now planned at least twice a year in the spring and fall through a Facebook page created by Conway, Conway explains.
The NWA-AAHA’s efforts go beyond physical maintenance as they seek out the identities and stories of those who lie beneath the ground at East Mountain Cemetery.
“We interview people from all over the community about their family history in the past. That’s how we make connections now. … The documents I have are at least 10 years old and come from a database of online ancestry data. … We have to glue things together,” says Holloway.
The organization is working to digitize the resources it has collected, but there are challenges. For example, slaves were usually given the surname of their slaveholder; however, spelling inconsistencies can make it difficult to find these people through censuses. Additionally, enslaved people were excluded from literacy, which added an additional challenge when searching for records, Holloway says.
“Everyone buried at East Mountain Cemetery has a story to tell about how we became who we are as a city, region and state, and our efforts will lead to charting a fair course,” Killian said. .