Forgotten cemeteries uncovered, preserved

SMITH COUNTY (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - Robin Pinkston was born a slave in Georgia and died a free man in Smith County. A marble grave stone marks his resting place in a historic African-American community cemetery he established as pastor of New Mountain Christian Methodist Episcopal church north of Tyler on U.S. Highway 271 after the Civil War.

A dozen graves are marked with similar stones. The names identify prevalent share cropper families and former slaves who quickly climbed the economic ladder in their community.

Dozens more are marked by flat, rust colored limestone. They are nameless, weathered by time and remain only a symbol of a life lived and a resting place to be revered not disturbed.

For decades the Pinkston Cemetery was forgotten and swallowed by forest and underbrush.

Marilyn Kelley, Pinkston's great-granddaughter, brought the cemetery back to life. She painstakingly researched the cemetery to establish its significance to Smith County and Texas history. With the help of the Smith County Historical Society members, Ms. Kelley garnered a state historical marker for the site in 2011.

"It was lost, but now it is found and protected," she said. "It's an honor to give back."

Attorney and local historian Randy Gilbert encouraged and helped Ms. Kelley along the way. He and his cohorts at the historical society have been seeking and finding forgotten cemeteries around the county since the 1970s. Many of the cemeteries date back to the establishment of the county seat in 1846. Some date before.

Gilbert, along with the historical and genealogical society, has uncovered documents referring to 246 cemeteries around the county. They include cemeteries drivers on Broadway Avenue pass daily, family and community plots located after years of neglect and those that remain lost. Of those lost cemeteries, Gilbert has an approximate idea that 40 sites are close to roads or near geographical identifiers but he has not set eyes on or mapped them.

Locating the cemeteries and mapping them for posterity is much easier now with Google Earth and GPS, he said. In the 1970s it took digging through deed records, obituaries and finding landowners willing to talk, he said.

"You know by old road records and church listings that there was a cemetery in the area but actually finding gravestones and putting your hands on them and putting a name to the location to check it off the list takes crossing fences," he said.

Gilbert said a substantial number of cemetery sites are on private property with little to no access other than trespassing. But it's important enough for Gilbert that he tracks landowners down. On occasion, he said, a hunter will come across what appears to be graves and reports them to the Historical Society.

Other times, landowners aren't so willing or can't be contacted, he said.

One landowner in eastern Smith County who has a cemetery with graves predating the county seat and who asked that he and the location of the site remain anonymous, said fear of vandalism, trespassing and the liability of having people cross onto his land make him hesitant to discuss the site.

"We're trying to protect it," he said. "I don't want to bring any attention to it at all."

Secrecy is required, because 15 years ago gravestones were vandalized and knocked over, he said. Other times the owner found curious trespassers who had a general idea where the cemetery was located.

It sits about a mile from the nearest road in a grove of trees. There are no roads or trails to the site with around 100 gravestones ranging from weathered limestone to large marble markers. Seclusion provides security, but it also makes the site difficult to monitor.

He also fears attention from the state, which might demand easements and access roads across his land. Secrecy can save cemeteries, but it also can disturb them and leave landowners in the lurch.

In 2012, Gilbert became aware of a possible gravesite being disturbed by a landowner building a home on recently purchased land. Smith County Sheriff's Department investigated the reports and determined with ground-penetrating radar that "anomalies were consistent with that of graves."

Investigator Bobby Van Ness said the landowner cooperated fully with investigators and faced no criminal charges, because he was unaware the land he bulldozed covered graves. The landowner may file civil litigation against the seller who may have not disclosed the graves.

Texas Historical Commission Debbi Head said reporting, identifying and protecting is important to safeguard historic and forgotten cemeteries. The Record, Identify and Protect program by the commission works closely with counties and local historic preservation groups to chart cemeteries.

Any site 50 years old is considered historic, but noteworthy people or events surrounding the site increase cemeteries' significance. Being part of the historic registry also opens opportunity for preservation efforts, including grants and funding partnerships.

State laws exist to protect cemeteries from vandalism, theft and desecration. Disturbing sites can lead to charges from misdemeanors to a state jail felony.

But protecting the cemeteries takes interest by communities, she said.

"That's why it's so important to have them in the record that spells out their boundaries so they are there for future generations," she said. "They are a part of our history."

Gilbert asked that anyone with information regarding possible gravesites, community plots or cemeteries around the county, to contact the Smith County Historical Society at 903-592-5993 or the Texas Historical Commission.


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