Opinion

OPINION | Tom Dillard: Graveyards tell more than ghost stories about Arkansas

Cemeteries are great places to walk and contemplate. Each has a history.

As a child, I enjoyed seeing tombstones with birth and death dates from the 19th century, a time frame I could not fully comprehend then.

I was especially drawn to tombstones of children, many of which were topped with small marble lambs. And I was fascinated by how bereaved families decorated the graves of their dead.

Several sources list Scull Cemetery near Arkansas Post as the oldest non-Native burial ground in the state. Early newspaper stories refer to it simply as Arkansas Post cemetery, the Scull name coming later. Since many of the graves do not have markers, we do not know when the first burial occurred.

Three-term Arkansas U.S. Rep. Henry W. Conway is also buried in an unmarked grave. Conway was one of several officials in early Arkansas who died on the field of honor. Conway was killed by territorial secretary Robert W. Crittenden on Nov. 9, 1827, the result of a particularly harsh campaign in which the congressman won re-election. Conway fired first in the duel, missing his target, but Crittenden did not miss, striking Conway in the chest. The congressman lingered for almost two weeks before he died.

Even the grave of Hewes Scull, after whom the cemetery was named, is unmarked. He came to Arkansas from Philadelphia in 1802, settling at Arkansas Post while it was still a French village. He became a merchant, traded with many of the trappers who operated out of Arkansas Post and became a major landowner in the area. Scull also held numerous elected offices in early Arkansas. He was the first sheriff of Arkansas County, and later the circuit clerk.

Though I have not visited it in years, Oakland Cemetery in Camden is a great place to learn state and local history. The cemetery, which dates to about 1840, was begun when a young girl died while on a boat on the nearby Ouachita River. The anchor chain from the boat was used to enclose her grave.

Oakland was one of several burial grounds in Arkansas which grew dramatically during the Civil War. Some 250 Confederate soldiers, most from the battles of Poison Springs, Marks Mill, and Jenkins Ferry, are buried at Oakland in a section of about one acre.

One of my favorite characters from 19th-century Arkansas is buried at Oakland, John T. Chidester. While the Butterfield stage line is better known, it lasted only a short time before succumbing to the Civil War, whereas Chidester's stagecoach lines served many towns in Arkansas and other area states over a long period of time.

In 1878 Chidester, for whom the town of Chidester in Ouachita County was named, bought a home in Camden which is a museum today. Chidester, who had several contracts to transport U.S. mail, became caught up in the Star Route scandal during the brief Garfield presidential administration.

Arkansas is home to many fascinating Black cemeteries. One of my favorites is Fraternal Cemetery in Little Rock, now administered as a part of the much larger Oakland Cemetery located across the street. In the early 1890s, several Black fraternal orders in Little Rock asked the city for a cemetery, and Fraternal Cemetery was born. A granite marker at the gate reading "Free American Citizens" testified to the pride Black residents of Little Rock took in that graveyard.

Among those buried at Fraternal Cemetery are several prominent Black leaders. The cemetery contains two mausoleums, one for Mifflin W. Gibbs, a lawyer and businessman who was also the first elected Black municipal judge in the U.S., and another for John E. Bush, a businessman, a co-founder of the Mosaic Templars of America, and a political power with the state Republican party.

A less well-known Black cemetery in Little Rock is Haven of Rest on 12th Street a bit west of University Avenue. Much of the land in the vicinity was owned by descendants of John E. Bush and other Black families. The first recorded burial at Haven of Rest is dated 1903. Today Haven of Rest is the largest Black cemetery in Arkansas, containing about 5,000 graves.

Integration pioneer and newspaper editor Daisy Bates is buried at Haven of Rest, as is her husband L.C. Bates (who deserves more attention than he gets). Scipio A. Jones, the defender of 12 Black men unfairly sentenced to death following the Elaine Massacre of 1919, is buried at Haven of Rest.

Haven of Rest grew considerably in 1961 when more than 400 graves in the 71-year-old Odd Fellows Cemetery at 27th and Orange streets in North Little Rock were relocated. The Odd Fellows had sold the cemetery to a Black undertaker, E.S. Hubble, who in turn sold it to a company building a Holiday Inn as part of an urban renewal program.

Perhaps as many as 2,500 Black residents lost their homes to urban renewal. The cemetery relocation was opposed by Black residents; the graves were moved, although some believed that many graves had been missed, causing hurt feelings and resentment to this day.

Perhaps the most blatant destruction occurred just south of El Dorado in 1922 when an oil well was drilled "almost up against" a Black cemetery. According to the Arkansas Gazette, "in the sunlight the several tombstones can be seen reflecting their rays on the derrick."

A few months later the same newspaper reported that a "big crater" had formed around the derrick and that the cemetery was on the verge of toppling into the massive hole of churning mud, water and oil.

White cemeteries were often neglected, too. In Helena, an abandoned cemetery situated on a hill west of downtown was relocated about 1898 to create a reservoir; "several wagonloads of bones, human skulls, and portions of metallic coffins were removed."

Cemeteries across Arkansas should be preserved as the historical treasures they are. They hold so many rich stories about our heritage. Next spring in early May -- when the old roses and peonies are abloom -- make time to visit a cemetery and seek out the area with the oldest graves.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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