Efforts to study and revitalize the Odd Fellows Cemetery in East Knoxville have generated greater public awareness of the site's historical significance.
Groups such as the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition, AmeriCorps, Knox Heritage, as well as professors and students of architecture at the University of Tennessee have all worked to maintain and restore the African-American burial ground.
"The Odd Fellows Cemetery was the first modern cemetery for African-Americans in Knoxville," said Stephen Scruggs with the Knoxville Reanimation Coalition. "This became a cemetery in 1880 with the help of a black fraternal organization known as the Odd Fellows. The mission of the Odd Fellows was to help the poor, widows, orphans, and anyone who did not have the means to help themselves. That especially included providing proper burials for people and that is how the Odd Fellows Cemetery got started."
Whenever one discusses the Odd Fellows Cemetery, the question generally arises about the origin of the fraternal organization's unusual moniker.
"Some people date the term 'odd fellows' back to Emperor Titus in the first century," said Scruggs. "In the context of groups like the Odd Fellows who built this cemetery, the phrase originated during the Industrial Revolution in England in the 18th century."
Workers in various skilled trades began forming professional guilds during that era. In small towns there would not have been enough workers of a specific trade to form a specific guild, people from various trades banded together to form their own friendly organizations.
"Unskilled laborers and those who held menial jobs were left out of the guilds, so they found strength in numbers by grouping together the people who held various odd jobs," said Scruggs. "They had to find their own means of identity and they did that through calling themselves the 'odd fellows' based on the fact that they did the odd jobs."
Groups like the Odd Fellows eventually transitioned from their guild role of labor union to that of a friendly social society focused on philanthropy. The Odd Fellows were based in Manchester, England, and established chapters and orders across the globe. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) was approved and formed in the United States in 1819.
The IOOF in the United States did not allow black members during the 19th century. For those African-Americans who wanted to start their own chapter of Odd Fellows, the approval would come from across the pond.
"A gentleman by the name of Peter Ogden was an African-American sailor who sailed between England and the United States," said Scruggs. "Ogden approached the order in England and set up a fraternal order here in the United States for the African-Americans in 1843. The African-American groups in the United States were known as the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows."
The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF) rose tremendously in popularity following the Civil War.
"African-American businessmen and very prominent members of the community established their own Odd Fellows fraternal orders around the south and the country," said Scruggs. "In 1902, in the book of Odd Fellows, there are three members mentioned from Knoxville. From that point, it grew to several hundred members."
The organization eventually disappeared from Knoxville and many other parts of the country, in part because New Deal policies provided many of the Odd Fellows' services. The GUOOF continued to fade when the much larger and well-established IOOF permitted the admission of black members.
Odd Graves and the Cemetery Today
The Odd Fellows Cemetery includes the graves of many members of the Odd Fellows organization.
"You can identify members of the Odd Fellows because the stones have a symbol with three chain links. One chain link contains the letter F, the second link contains the letter L, and the last link will have the letter T within it," said Scruggs. "That stood for the organization's tenets of friendship, love, and truth."
As the cemetery was used by all African-Americans in the community, it includes individuals from a wide range of societal status.
"There are some people here who were indigents and were buried by the Odd Fellows. This cemetery also includes the family plot of Cal Johnson, one of the first black millionaires. Johnson was born into slavery, started out shining shoes and digging graves, and eventually saved enough money to buy a racehorse. From there he eventually built a horse track in the Burlington community of East Knoxville and made a lot of money through what was then legal gambling. They eventually outlawed horse racing to put him out of business in that regard, but by then he had several other businesses in town and was involved in city government," said Scruggs.
Whether the marked graves are for the wealthy or the poor, the entire cemetery is rich in African burial traditions.
"You will see pottery pressed into the headstones, which was an African tradition to put something that belonged to that person into the stone. Those stones will not have a name or a date of birth or death," said Scruggs. "Other stones will just have a name with no date because an African tradition was to look at burial as returning to the earth. It was also tradition among some Africans to let the grave go unkempt on purpose because it was returning to its natural state with that person buried there. In other cases you will find graves oriented east-and-west so that the person would be facing Africa."
Scruggs and others are working to complete a full survey of the entire cemetery. Students in local middle schools have taken on class projects to identify and research the individuals buried in the cemetery.
"I grew up walking past this cemetery on the way to school. I played little league baseball at Cal Johnson field," said Scruggs. "Yet, I never knew anything about this incredible history of Johnson or this cemetery. It was just a baseball field and a bunch of graves. I'm motivated today by a desire to change the way something is viewed. A cemetery can be something more than a place for dead people. It can be a community park. It can be a place to walk, relax, read, and reflect on life. It can have an impact on our future by linking us to our past."
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