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Historic cemetery sits on proposed high school land

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Nov 4, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Limestone rocks mark the graves of unknown people on land bought recently by the Wilson County Board of Education. 

Rows and headstones of these graves were marked during a land survey conducted last year, and tentative plans to build a new high school in Mt. Juliet could shape the future of the historic site. 

The school board hired archaeologists Paul Avery and Jason Ross with the Cultural Resource Analysts group to find out more information about the cemetery plot. 

“The survey began with a visual examination of the cemetery and the surrounding area,” the survey report said. “The cemetery was identified by a series of tabular stones placed into the ground vertically. The marked graves were in rough north-south rows and appeared to be facing east. The stones did not appear to have been worked or marked in any way. Many were concealed by vegetation and were very difficult to see.” 

The cemetery faces east and on a gentle slope that now leads into a subdivision. The orientation of the graves is significant, since Protestant graves are normally oriented east-to-west due to religious reasons. The survey found 31 marked graves and nine unmarked graves within the 100-square-foot area. Phil Hodge, archaeology program manager for the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s environmental division, said with sites like these it is likely that twice that number of graves could be under the surface.

The possibilities for who may be buried there are many. Since the graves are unmarked, they could have been slaves, or they could belong to poorer families or even members of a church. A historic map from the 1940s shows a church relatively close by. Hodge said it would take some digging, both around the gravesite and in historic records, to find out who may be buried there. 

“There are probably oral histories, but the people burying them here would have been illiterate. There’s no way to know for sure if it’s a slave cemetery without digging it up, and even then it’s not definitive,” Hodge said. “The only artifact would be bones, teeth or sometimes a pin to hold the funeral shroud in place.”

To identify those buried in the graves, an interested group could conduct a project to investigate. The cemetery is close to another old cemetery, one with headstones that hold dates as far back as the 1700s.  

“If you know the names of the people who are buried in this other cemetery up here and the people who have lived here, it’s conceivable that you could find descendants,” Hodge said.  

If the graves were moved, descendants would have to be notified.

Wilson County Schools spokesperson Jennifer Johnson said “the site plan was drawn in such a way that preserves the graves for historical purposes.”

In July, the Wilson County Budget Committee discussed the proposed $110 million new high school in Mt. Juliet. As population continues to grow across the county, so does the demand for schools. The school board is working on plans for the new high school, along with finding the funds to build it. 

As of Aug. 11, Mt. Juliet High School had 2,205 students. Wilson County Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall said in July the proposed high school could immediately have 1,507 students – all from the county’s northwest corner population. He said based on current population and rezoning for the school, Mt. Juliet’s enrollment would drop to 1,363 students.

The committee took no action at the time on promising money for the new school.

Democrat staff writer Xavier Smith contributed to this report.

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