Abandoned and forgotten: Texas journalist reclaims history by restoring Black cemetery
Journalist Rodney Hawkins didn't get a full picture of African American history from school.
"I grew up in Plano and so I read in the history books in large part about slavery, it wasn't that long of passages, maybe a chapter if we got that in the book,” he said. “But it never really registered with me that the history I was reading in those books, my direct connection to it."
Hawkins discovered his own history when his family was one of the first to participate in the Lone Star Slavery Project, which researches records to build an archive of enslaved people in Texas. For Hawkins, that discovery started with an interview with his great grandmother, Elise Powell Hurd.
The conversation was the catalyst for a three year journey, which included the uncovering of his family’s nearly 200-year-old ancestral burial site.
“We were able to find out relatives that we didn't know were relatives, we thought were neighbors, friends,” he said. “But through this cemetery, we're able to connect so many dots that even looking in ancestry and looking into our history and records, we wouldn't have been able to if we didn't have the actual physical piece."
The Old Mount Gillion Cemetery in East Texas had been abandoned for over 30 years when Hawkins learned of it. Many historic Black cemeteries in the country like this have been neglected, which Hawkins says reflects how little our society appreciates Black history.
“All of us African Americans in this country should be able to look back into our history in some shape or form,” he said.
Hawkins along with 50 family members and volunteers spent two years restoring the cemetery. Cutting down trees and cleaning gravestones made time for his family to reconnect. It was healing for Hawkins to reclaim his history and the cemetery is now recognized by the Texas Historical Commission.
The piney woods of East Texas, where the cemetery is located, is featured in an immersive display on the walls of AT&T headquarters, as a part of “The Mount Experience.” The exhibition features photography from Kwesi Yanful, who documented Hawkin’s entire ancestral journey.
"I've actually gotten really close with my parents, in part because I'm growing up, but in part also because of how I saw Rodney's family connect with one another, and so it's impacted me on a personal level," he said.
The exhibition also features work from Hawkins's cousin, Dallas-based artist T'Ria Hurd, who recreated her grandmother Ova Curl's living room for the exhibition.
"I wanted to do something I felt my grandmother would appreciate and I think going with my gut on my choices,” she said. “Whether it was wallpaper, wood, felt, that was really the ode to her, just like being firm, being eccentric, being eclectic, and just kind of owning it, she was just unapologetic in that way."
Hurd thinks her grandmother would be proud of how the family came together for the restoration.
"It almost felt ritualistic in a sense, because we are so in our phones and in our own careers and we don't see each other,” she said. “We don't spend time together and so I think like doing labor in nature and like just spending that time with my family, no phones, just completely disconnected, was really just beautiful and fulfilling for me."
Today, the family continues to visit and clean up the cemetery just like their grandparent's generation did.
Hawkins hopes by sharing his journey more people will be encouraged to connect with relatives to learn about their family tree.
"I hope that with this project I inspire more of my generation, of millennials, Gen Z'ers, a lot of us are interested in our history and building connections in that way, and I just want to empower more of us to continue to do that, let's talk to our elders more," he said.
Details: The Mount Experience is up at AT&T Headquarters in the AT&T Discovery District in downtown Dallas through February 21st.
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