Neglected slave cemetery needs community support

Swanson Cemetery, where more than 200 slaves are buried, needs a major overhaul. There are 36 marked and 23 unmarked graves, many of the headstones are broken.

Swanson Cemetery, an historic slave cemetery in Anderson County for more than 150 years, stands in neglect – abandoned, it seems, by history and the community.

Filled with towering Bodark trees, overgrown brush, and broken headstones, Swanson Cemetery hasn't been mowed or cleaned for five years. It is one of roughly 4,000 historic black cemeteries across Texas in substandard condition.

Purchased by local slaveowner Henry C. Swanson in 1852, as part of a 600-acre tract, Swanson Cemetery provides the final resting place for more than 200 slaves. The two-acre cemetery lies three and a half miles east of Palestine on U.S. Highway 84.

Jimmy Odom of the Anderson County Historical Commission, the white male who has acted as the cemetery's caretaker, is inviting – even challenging – Palestine's black community to step up.

Swanson helped restore the cemetery and secure the grounds. Now, at 82 years old, however, he can no longer maintain it.

“I want to turn the cemetery over to the black community and let them have their own leadership team run the cemetery,” Odom told the Herald-Press. “It's a mess out there now. The black community or the Swanson (family) needs to take care of that cemetery.”

The cemetery's last major cleanup was two decades ago.

In 1997, Vivian Hinton, determined to find her great-grandmother's grave, attended an Anderson County Historical Commission meeting. There, she met Newell Kane, great-grandson of slaveowner Henry Swanson.

Hinton, a slave descendant, and Kane, the descendant of a slave-master, agreed to meet the next morning at Swanson Cemetery.

The cemetery includes only 36 marked and 23 unmarked graves. When Kane and Hinton found Hinton's great-grandmother's grave, the headstone, like Hinton's heart, was broken into pieces.

Bounded by history, Kane and Hinton vowed to restore the cemetery to give the dead a proper resting place.

Volunteers, led by Hinton, Kane, and Nancy Taylor, also a slave descendant, gathered to clean the cemetery and fence and secure the area. Inmates from the George Beto Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also helped.

Cattle had roamed through the cemetery for more than 50 years. The cemetery had closed in the mid-1940s, when the last slave was buried there. During this period, slave descendants were denied access to the cemetery.   

On July 4, 1998, the cemetery finally opened to the public, and roughly 300 people toured the cemetery. Descendants of slaves buried in the cemetery conducted the tours.

The Historical Commission oversees the cemetery, but property records from Anderson County appear to identify the state of Texas as the owner. A cattle ranch lies adjacent to the cemetery.

Swanson purchased the land in 1852 from Elisha Main, an heir to Micham Main.

Swanson, a native of Virginia, brought more than 150 slaves to the 600-acre tract.

Swanson Cemetery didn’t become an official Texas Historical Marker until April 29, 2000.

Kane died in 2013, and is buried in Swanson. Kane and Main are the only non-slaves buried there.

At his request, Kane was buried in the southwest corner of the cemetery, also known as “Kane's Corner.” It was also the last time the cemetery opened to the public.

“I don't want to see the place go back to nothing,” Odom said. “I want the black community to take charge of the cemetery as they did once before, with Hinton and Taylor leading the charge. It's their families that make-up the cemetery.”

The Anderson County Historical Commission has keys to the Swanson Cemetery and will accommodate any slave descendants that want to visit the cemetery.

For more information on Swanson Cemetery, contact Odom, 903-729-7251.