Numerous grave markers dot a 7.7-acre tranquil field lying within a whisper of the green and white Lebanon City Limits sign.
Some names and dates chiseled into the gray headstones can no longer be deciphered as a century's worth of ravaging by wind, rain and cold has erased the letters and numerals from the limestone surfaces.
Sadly, it is likely that the majority of black citizens, who were laid to rest at Rest Hill Cemetery, never had a marker. Their names may never be known.
This historically-rich African American burial ground, established between 1867 and 1869, earned its spot on the National Register of Historic Places on March 25, 1993, via efforts of the Wilson County Civic League, with assistance from the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU.
Over the past five or six decades scholars such as John Michael Vlach have come to appreciate the interdisciplinary significance of African-American graveyards, places like Lebanon's Rest Hill Cemetery, which he says reveal a total "lifeway of a group of people including their verbal, material and spiritual forms of expression," something he labels as folk life.
Thus, this sacred ground remains important not for history alone but also communally as well as personally.
"It's a place that always generates feelings in me of belonging to that community," says Lebanon native Patricia Ward Lockett, 78, co-author of In Their Own Voices: An Account of the Presence of African Americans in Wilson County and chairman of the 2002 Rest Hill Preservation Committee.
"My father's mother and father lived there and grew up there right on Trousdale Ferry Pike next door to the cemetery, so the cemetery had great meaning for them," said Lockett, whose father, paternal grandparents and paternal great-grandparents were buried at Rest Hill.
The daughter of Leon and Anna Mai (Allen) Ward, Lockett said, "There are many, many unmarked graves in that cemetery. The number that has headstones is just a fraction of the number of people buried there.
"Part of the work of that committee was to try and identify people who were buried there who did not have headstones. We were never able to follow up on that. If there are any young people who would come forward and would do it, that would be wonderful.
"When we were compiling that book, we interviewed in excess of 100 people. I would say 75 percent of them are dead now, which says that a whole generation of people are gone who may have been more interested in the cemetery than the generation following them. I think that is maybe a very natural thing," said Lockett.
A Nashville resident for decades, she returns to Rest Hill every time she visits her hometown.
"I usually walk through to see who was buried there recently and to see the condition of the headstone of my father and other people that I knew when I lived there. If for no other reason, it brings back to me a time in my life, a carefree, happy childhood, where things were familiar and that cemetery is part of what was familiar to me."
Exactly how many people have been buried here is not known, but 32 were interred in marked graves between 1867 and 1933. More were laid to rest in unmarked graves.
Rest Hill served as the only African-American cemetery in Lebanon from 1869-1933 when blacks were not allowed to be buried in the city cemetery. The burials here reflect the original African-American community in Lebanon, which grew with the assistance of the Freedman's Bureau during the Reconstruction era and the racial segregation of the Jim Crow period.
How did the cemetery come into existence?
In 1867, B.B. Manson, Nicholas Manson, Joseph Provine and Thomas Stokes purchased a 150-acre lot on Lebanon's east side from Ben K. Owens. Two years later, three acres of this plot were given to another group of trustees for the formation of an African-American cemetery.
Veteran Nashville journalist Gloria Ballard is another with deep roots and strong sentiment for this place as her Ballard grandparents, great-grandfather and several great aunts and great uncles were buried here. She notes that two to three generations back, Rest Hill served as "the place" for black community leaders to be buried.
"It was considered the cream-of-the-crop cemetery in the African-American community. It was nicely done. It was nothing big or fancy. For the time it was being well kept. For people who were very involved in the community, that's their final resting place."
Among those prominent in the black community of yesteryear who sleep here are: B.B. Manson, an original trustee of the Rest Hill land; Jake Owen, a delegate to both the Congressional district and the state Republican conventions in 1898; and Martin Manson, a delegate to the state convention in 1888.
Also laid to rest here have been veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"One of my memories from childhood is standing in the cemetery during my grandfather's funeral and being impressed by the military burial ritual and the 21-gun salute. He had fought in France in the Great War. It's a place I feel very close to," said Ballard, noting that her grandfather, William A. Ballard, was a teacher and principal at Lebanon's Market Street School, and her grandmother, Alberta Sanders Ballard, taught first grade there as well.
"Once a year I have to dig out my grandfather's gravestone. It's a flat stone. I know where it is. I take a trowel and sort of scrape back the dirt from it, so I can read it again."
It was these strong ancestral ties that inspired Ballard, the daughter of William B. Ballard and Hazel Blaine Ballard, to serve beside Lockett on the Rest Hill Preservation Committee in 2002.
"When we were beginning the process of trying to get it restored, the cemetery was all weedy and overgrown. I kind of knew where my family's stones were, but we couldn't get to them," she recalled.
"The committee's goal was to clean up the cemetery, to get it recognized for its historical significance and to see that it didn't get completely grown over and lost in history. I know that Roy Bailey was the one in the beginning very involved until he died. Pat [Lockett] had been working on this book, and all of them had been very involved in gathering stories from the community.
"I was then thrilled to be a part of that because I did feel such a connection to the community, to Lebanon and the memories of my grandparents there. Ultimately, we tried to find a way that the cemetery could be maintained, which we did by talking with Mayor Don Fox at the time, and through that route, I think the city of Lebanon maintains the cemetery," Ballard said.
Harry Watkins, vice president of the Wilson County Civic League, shares a bit more about the process of the transfer of the property.
"We had to convince the city of Lebanon that they needed to maintain it because during slavery and post slavery, a lot of African Americans weren't allowed to be buried in the city cemetery, or if they were, they weren't buried in a proper manner. So some had to go out and start their own cemetery and at the same time were paying taxes," said Watkins.
"We thought there was kind of an injustice there and talked to the mayor because the city of Lebanon was donating money to the civic group to maintain it."
So in October 2002 the city agreed to assume control of Rest Hill, the only remnant of the original African-American community of Lebanon, a site central to Lebanon's African-American identity.
Reflecting on the cemetery, Tennessee State Historian Dr. Carroll Van West, who assisted the Civic League in gaining national recognition for Rest Hill, said, "I learned so much from the cemetery and people like Major Harry Watkins when I had the honor of working with them to nominate it to the National Register almost 20 years ago.
"Historic black cemeteries are always landmarks of faith and community, ideals that kept African Americans moving forward on that challenging road from emancipation. Rest Hill is one of the earliest I studied, and I often stop by to see how it is doing and imagine a bit of the stories it could tell."
An excursion to Rest Hill today reveals a modest, almost sparse graveyard in a residential setting, yet it exudes a historical feeling due to the three-foot-high rock wall that borders its front along Trousdale Ferry Pike. A horseshoe-shaped dirt road guides visitors around the field where the most significant features marking this place as unique are the variety of rectangular family plots, some bordered by cut stones.
There are two entrances to Rest Hill with gates that swing outward never, a fitting invitation for those, whether their names be known or not on this side of eternity, who have gone the last mile of the way.
Many of the facts in this article were gleaned from "Rest Hill Cemetery Preservation, Restoration and Interpretation Plan" (December 2002) by Sarah Jackson, Andra Kowalczyk and Laura Stewart in conjunction with Middle Tennessee State University's Civil War National Heritage Area project (Carroll Van West, director); and from In Their Own Voices: An Account of the Presence of African Americans in Wilson County (1999)by Patricia Ward Lockett, Mattie McHollin and the Wilson County Black History Committee.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.