Community activist Diane Davis, who helped organize last summer's cleanup, hopes to make the volunteer effort an annual event. She also wants a sign on Highway 84 to mark the historic cemetery.
Eventually, Swanson Cemetery could host open houses and become an educational asset for local schools. It is one of roughly 4,000 historic black cemeteries across Texas in substandard condition.
For now, however, the cemetery, off Highway 84, next to the Texas State Railroad Park in Anderson County, remains practically unknown, even to locals.
The 1.7-acre cemetery is the final resting place for more than 200 slaves. It includes 36 marked and 23 unmarked graves. Swanson didn’t become an official Texas Historical Marker until April 29, 2000.
If these headstones could talk …....
A mile off the highway and three miles east of Palestine, the cemetery was part of 600 acres owned by slave owner Harry C. Swanson. In 1852, he and his brother moved here from Alabama with their slaves. The previous owner and slave master, Micham Main, died in 1850. His final resting place is unknown.
The cemetery remains difficult to get to and hard to find. Filled with towering Bodark trees, Swanson Cemetery hadn't been mowed or cleaned for five years before the community-cleanup on Saturday, Aug. 4, of last year.
Jimmy Odom, 82, served as the cemetery caretaker until early 2018.
In an article and column last July by former Herald-Press reporter Lee Watkins, Odom challenged the African American community to step up.
“I don't want to see the place go back to nothing,” Odom told Watkins. “I want the black community to take charge of the cemetery, as they did once before.”
After Watkins' article in the Herald-Press, four members of the black community, including Diane Davis, called Odom to express interest. They helped organize last summer's cleanup, which drew about 50 residents.
Some of the volunteers brought riding lawnmowers, a front load tractor, chainsaws, and other equipment.
“I was just overwhelmed,” Davis said. “I was in tears. It was just amazing.”
Odom gave Davis the key to the property's gate. Anyone who has descendants in the cemetery, and would like to visit, should contact Davis, 903-922-9738.
Before the clean-up, brush and weeds obscured the grave markers, Davis said.
Davis pointed to numerous locations where plants, similar to Iris, serve as grave markers.
Finding information on the Swanson Cemetery was difficult, partly because county records listed the property as the Bridges' Cemetery, whose family still owns the estate.
Few non-slaves are buried in the cemetery. Newell Kane, great-grandson of Harry Swanson, in 2013, was buried in the cemetery in what is called Kane's Corner.
Perhaps the first to be buried on the parcel was accomplished bricklayer Samuel Warden, who died in 1847, while Main owned the estate. His grave site has no marker, but it has bricks on top and around to signify his profession.