Bringing back Brooks Cemetery
O ld, abandoned cemeteries are a challenge to rehabilitate under the best of circumstances. Add grave relocations, private and federal property negotiations, difficult access, no known living relatives of the interred, and the complicating matter of race, and you can picture the difficulties faced by the U.S. Forest Service as it rehabilitated Brooks Cemetery.
Brooks Cemetery is located on the north side of Lake Ouachita in westernmost Garland County, on property managed by the Forest Service. It originally contained about 40 graves of people who were interred prior to the 1940s. The names and races of those individuals are unknown, although they were probably all white or all black. (Until only recently, it was common practice for people of different races to be buried separately.)
Before Lake Ouachita was formed by the construction of Blakely Mountain Dam, hundreds of burials needed to be relocated to existing cemeteries outside of the projected high-water mark. Nearly 140 African-American and mixed ancestry burials were brought to Brooks Cemetery from the area destined to become Lake Ouachita. Remains were removed in 1952 from at least six locations, including Cedar Brakes Cemetery (32), Little Georgia Cemetery (100), Unknown Cemetery No. 2 (4), Unknown Cemetery No. 4 (1), Pittman Cemetery (1), and the Borman Grave (1). The original cemetery locations are now under Lake Ouachita.
Aside from sporadic efforts by a few Forest Service employees, Brooks Cemetery until recently had been virtually abandoned. Large trees and thick underbrush had grown up until it was no longer apparent, other than from its fence and the misspelled “Cemetary” sign, that this was a cemetery with more than a handful of graves. The identities of those interred there were hard to determine. Graves in the six original burial locations had prob-
ably been marked with wooden crosses that had long ago disintegrated or with native stone. Only marked stones were transferred with the reburials, and only six of the relocations were accompanied by the original markers. The rest of the re-interred graves had been marked with temporary metal funeral home markers. The markers bore the names of the deceased, if known, although most were unknown. Over time, many of the aluminum funeral home grave markers were stolen, broken, or “relocated.” Even the grave locations were uncertain.
During 2011 and 2012, Forest Service employees Jamie Chambliss, Larry Ray, and Wesley Whisenhunt braved poison ivy, ticks and chiggers, yellow jackets, and venomous reptiles while making a concerted rehabilitation effort at Brooks. They cleared underbrush and piled vegetation to cure for later burning. In March 2012, Forest Service employees Gabe Oseguera and Clayton Swanger accomplished a prescribed burn of the cemetery. This created a soil surface that was smooth and free of debris to allow application of a technology called ground penetrating radar to verify the location of each grave. GPR works like sonar to determine changes in the structure of the ground. The echo-like results make determination and verification of disturbed area locations, like graves, much easier. Natural Resources Conservation Service employees soil scientist Richard Vaught and archeologist John Riggs brought the GPR to pinpoint the actual grave locations and provided their much-appreciated expertise in determining if remains had actually been placed in each grave. The technology indicated the exact locations of graves and revealed that there were, indeed, many burials.
Sandstone slabs on three palettes, amounting to 5 tons of rock, were delivered to be placed as headstones at all graves. Seven students, Brandon Long, Mitchell Harper, Braden Crumpton, Wesley Castleberry, Bryce Cockman, Camron Fox, and Tristen Parker, Principal Toby Packard from Jessieville High School, and Anika Brantley from eSTEM High School in Little Rock joined Forest Service personnel for three hours of back-breaking work as they placed the slabs.
The students made many trips up and down the steep hill carrying tons of unmarked sandstone slabs and buckets of mortar mix. They used hand tools to dig trenches for the headstones in locations that had been previously marked in the ground. Out of respect for the belief of many early African-Americans that no impediments should obscure the face of Jesus when he comes from the east for believers, the headstones were placed on the west end of each grave. The students set the sandstone slabs in upright positions and filled the trenches by tamping dry mortar mix around the stone. Each of the relocated graves was marked. Future work will involve deciphering the jumbled placement of the forty or so original burials and marking those, as well.
A limited amount of genealogy work on those re-interred at Brooks Cemetery is proceeding with the hope that descendants can be found to assume the continuing revitalization and maintenance of Brooks Cemetery. Many of the residents of the area were former slaves or children of former slaves. Quite a few were also landowners, having proved up on homestead patents or purchased their property through cash sale.
The work at Brooks Cemetery is not complete. Several of the gravestones that accompanied the re-interred graves have been damaged and are in need of repair. Routine vegetation management remains difficult with limited resources. Research continues for the marking and identifying of the forty original burials. We continue to explore genealogical leads to family members of the original African-American communities now under Lake Ouachita. In the future, a QR code will be posted at the cemetery to provide access to genealogical information using a smartphone.