West Lawn Cemetery is the final resting place for hundreds of Johnson’s black citizens, many of whom have lived and died without knowing a life outside of apartheid.
It is believed that the land, located on Lowell Street, began to be used as a burial place for black residents of the city in 1902, as whites and blacks at the time could not be buried on the same land. But West Lawn is more than a graveyard – it’s history, especially for those with family buried on its grounds.
“It was the only place African Americans could be buried,” said Lisa Black, West Lawn board member. “There is a lot of history here, a lot of history and that is important to me because both my parents and my two grandparents are buried there, as well as a lot of our community leaders.”
Among the community leaders buried there is Dr Hezekiah Hankal, an educator, minister, physician and civic leader whose work helped shape Johnson City. He and his wife are buried at West Lawn. Dr James Johnson, the city’s first African-American doctor, is also buried there.
John Birchette, owner of Birchette Mortuary, said knowledge of the cemetery’s history made it particularly important in his life and among family and friends.
“Everyone I know has a family member buried there,” Birchette said. “I have a grandmother, uncles, aunts, they are all there. It is a place of peace for me. I can go visit graves and see my family, and as I walk around I see the names of other African Americans that I have known growing up over the years.
However, not everyone respects the history of the cemetery or what it means to the community. Over the years, West Lawn has been vandalized on several occasions, most recently in October, when someone dumped what Black described as house building materials on the ground. Perhaps the most egregious incident happened in 2017, when vandals knocked over and smashed gravestones.
And although a police report was filed after the 2017 incident, no one has ever been arrested.
“I don’t think they really understand the importance of West Lawn Cemetery,” Black said of the vandals. “The vandalism was not only hurtful, it seemed to mean that the importance of the cemetery was not sacred.”
Birchette said that seeing the cemetery vandalized “hurts” and that it was “a painful thing to see”.
“During that time, I probably got 40 or 50 phone calls from outside people (asking if) ‘my loved ones’ grave has been hit?’ and I made several trips, took pictures of the names and confirmed, “yes it was damaged” or “no, yours is OK. “
“It shows you how deep the feelings towards this graveyard are.”