Bring­ing back Brooks Ceme­tery

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Culture -

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.

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