Beck Knob Cemetery in North Chattanooga is part of history
The discovery of an old African American graveyard by a local developer has reignited a decades-old debate over how to preserve what is believed to be the first such cemetery in Chattanooga.
The Beck Knob Cemetery lies just beyond Knickerbocker Avenue, off Dartmouth Street in North Chattanooga. Public records show local abolitionist and staunch Union supporter Joshua Beck deeded the cemetery to Hurst Memorial M. E. Church on May 13, 1888. Beck’s family farm occupied much of Hill City at the time, and he believed former slaves and their families should have a recognized final resting place.
As E. Raymond Evans and Rita Hubbard detail in their book Historic African American Places in the Chattanooga Area, the cemetery was maintained by Hurst Memorial Church for many years. Newspaper accounts of the time report graves being excavated by medical students for dissecting practice. As members of the Hurst church grew older, the cemetery fell into disrepair and kudzu returned the graveyard to the forest.
The last known burials in the cemetery were in the 1940s. The Hamilton County Genealogical Society notes the North Side Garden Club cleared the property and restored much of the cemetery in 1968.
Neighbors say they have known about Beck Knob Cemetery since the late 1970s. “When I moved here in 1975, you could still see headstones on the hill,” says Dan LaGraff. “I was hiking and came upon an overturned marker. I went to place it on its pedestal and was immediately stung by a bee from a beehive I disturbed.”
But perhaps the most active member in the preservation and restoration of the graveyard is Daughters of the Union Treasurer and Hamilton County Genealogical Society member Alma Webb. She took an interest in local graveyards in the 1980s. She remembers her son’s Boy Scout troop clearing the cemetery of brush around the same time.
“I want to know what the city is doing,” says Webb. “The city is not doing their job. Why wasn’t it surveyed?” As recently as 2009, a local group led by A. Wolfe and E.R. Evans mapped the cemetery with GPS and then implemented a grid system to map each gravesite. Members of the Hurst Memorial Methodist church were on hand for the survey, according to Wolfe and Evans’ book The Beck Knob Cemetery.
Construction on the site has resumed, even though a formal report has not been filed with the city. Alexander Consulting is the archeological firm handing the work. Owner Lawrence Alexander had no update on the progress of the survey. It’s been reported the developer, Green Tech Homes, plans on fully protecting the cemetery.
But the problem may be no one has an accurate count on how many people are buried in the graveyard. Webb’s research shows around 100 people are buried there, while the 2009 survey shows about 40 graves. Regardless of what the current survey finds, Alma Webb hopes the graveyard can finally be permanently preserved. “It’s such a beautiful cemetery,” she says. “It’s an important part of North Chattanooga history.”