Black History Month: Knoxville man strives to remember Civil War soldiers

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – We’re continuing our celebration of Black History Month and the impact African-Americans have had on East Tennessee. An ongoing push to honor the African-American soldiers from Knoxville who fought in the Civil War is seeing huge success.

Odd Fellows Cemetery was once an overgrown cemetery filled with weeds and no distinction of the rich history it held.

“This cemetery is important to this community because it holds a lot of the community history from the 1880s. It’s probably one of the oldest of the cemeteries in the community,” says Steven Scruggs of the Knoxville Re-Animation Coalition.

On this land off Bethel Avenue in East Knoxville sits the graves of Knoxville’s African-American soldiers from the Civil War.

“Of those 34 we have located 22 to 23 stones and that was a major accomplishment.”

Scruggs has made it his mission to keep this bit of history alive for all to cherish.

“The Black soldiers [were apart of] the first United States Colored Heavy Artillery formed out of the unit in Ohio. Two thousand and seventy-four members in total during the Civil War were in the first United States colored heavy artillery.”

Scruggs has teamed up with students from the University of Tennessee to maintain the property, but also discover the names and stories of the soldiers that rest in peace there. Many prominent African-Americans are buried there. Calvin “Cal” Johnson, Knoxville’s first African-American millionaire and William Yardley, a former city alderman and 1876 candidate for governor of Tennessee are just two of many.

“Unfortunately they’re over 5,000 burials in this area and only 500 stones remaining.”

Scruggs’ program takes the life stories of these soldiers and passes them on to local students in the scholar’s program. In 2013, they won first place in the high school division of the Knoxville Film Festival for their film “Cemetery of Life.”

“It wasn’t taught to me and I take great pleasure in getting that information to young kids long before I was able to get it”

Scruggs takes pride in knowing the cemetery and its history is being kept alive.

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