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Documentary team to highlight efforts to save abandoned, historic Black cemetery

Efforts to renovate Eastport Cemetery in East Knoxville have gained momentum this month.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A grassroots Knoxville group trying to reclaim a long-abandoned historic Black cemetery has a new ally -- a University of Tennessee documentary team that's highlighted topics as diverse as Medal of Honor recipients and entertainer Dolly Parton's literacy efforts.

Land Grant Films has started work documenting the project to renovate the old Eastport Cemetery at Fuller Avenue-Addison Street near Wilder Place. An estimated 5,000 graves may be located there but the land has become so overgrown through the decades it's difficult to even get to it.

WBIR first reported about the cemetery, which dates to the 1840s, in July 2018.

This month, the Citizens Cemetery Group, with help from Earthadelic Landscaping, volunteers and the city, began the arduous process of cutting down and clearing out the thick scrub and vegetation that have taken over.

Nick Geidner, director of Land Grand Films and an associate professor at UT, said Friday several UT students, a staff member and himself have already been out to the site.

They plan to return Saturday and expect to set up local interviews soon and also identify regional or national experts who can lend perspective to the topic for the film.

Land Grant likes to feature local non-profits in ways that raise awareness about what they're doing and encourage contributions to them. 

Geidner said he wants to ensure the documentary benefits the Citizens Cemetery Group in what they're trying to do.

Perhaps, he said, there could be a screening in the fall that could also serve as a fundraiser.

Citizens Cemetery Group was formed in May 2019. It wants to preserve the historic ground, which includes the remains of some of old Knoxville's more prominent Black residents, and eliminate the trash and overgrowth that have accumulated through the years.

Those attending that first meeting included George Kemp, Robert Booker, Jennifer Simon, Terrell Patrick, the Rev. Renee Kesler, and Dan Brown.

Across the street from the cemetery is the former Warner Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, founded in the 1840s.

It's reported to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Land Grant projects give a select group of UT students experience in film-making and storytelling mixed in with what amounts to public service.

WBIR anchor John Becker is a board member.

Land Grant's projects have included "The Library That Dolly Built," highlighting Parton's efforts to boost literacy, and student documentaries about the Vietnam War.

They've also interview Medal of Honor recipient and Tennessee native Charles Coolidge, who recently died.

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