Hidden History: Historically black cemetery, a place of reverence in the Tri-Cities

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It was a place where African Americans were buried, because during segregation, whites and blacks were not allowed to be laid to rest on the same soil.

West Lawn Cemetery is a six-acre property, located between 1220 and 1310 Lowell Street, in Johnson City.

Its oldest section dates back to 1902. The burial site expanded in 1924.

West Lawn Cemetery is an historically black cemetery that was created in 1902. It later expanded in 1924 to six acres.

The cemetery was created as the burial site of African Americans in the City. Many of Johnson City’s lifelong African American service members are buried at West Lawn Cemetery.

It is also the gravesite for many African American veterans, who were not allowed to be buried at the VA, or anywhere else at the time.

“It’s not just Black History Month. It’s for the history of Johnson City,” Lisa Black said. “There’s so many in our community that are here, that I remember growing up.”

Lisa Black is on the cemetery’s committee. She wants the historic site to represent a place of reverence.

“A sacred burial ground,” she said.

Black fears community members have little respect for the cemetery due to recent incidents that have happened on site.

“About six weeks ago, we found that a dump truck had backed up to this part of the property, and had actually dumped building materials. It was cinder blocks,” she said.

The cemetery was also vandalized in 2017, leaving several headstones turned over and the culprit hasn’t come forward. News Channel 11 reported on the story when the incident occurred, and shared how community members cleaning up the site.

“It’s not only African American history or an African American cemetery, initially. It’s part of the City of Johnson City, and it was very hurtful to say the least,” Black explained.

West Lawn Cemetery is located on 1220 Lowell Street, in Johnson City.

The committee is actively working to restore the rest of the burial site.

“It’s almost like the community has croatched on the property and that the relevance that we’re not significant, and I want to bring the light that we are,” Black said.

This is especially a personal issue for Black, as both of her parents plus, other family members are buried in the historically black cemetery.

“The Culburtons Family, which my mother was Shelby Culborton and the Callahan Rhea Family is here,” she pointed out.

Formerly a place for African Americans, the six-acre lot is open to the general public.

“We have all nationalities buried out there,” said Robert McKinney, secretary for the West Lawn Cemetery Committee.

McKinney explained, “That was one of the places for the African Americans to be born. It’s very affordable, versus using Washington County or Monte Vista.”

“It’s ironic to me as we know, that our bodies return to dust, that the dust does not signify a color of your skin or a color of your body while you’re living,” Black said. “If you don’t know, now you will know that West Lawn is very much here, not just as a historical site, but as a place of reverence.”

West Lawn Cemetery is still an active cemetery and is open to any family, regardless of race.

In November, U.S. Sen. Alexander Lamar (R-TN), along with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), introduced bipartisan legislation to create a nationwide network for African American burial sights to be preserved and maintained by federal assistance.

If the committee moves forward with the resolution, it would be called the “African American Burial Grounds Network Act”.

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