This year I intend to visit a variety of historic cemeteries in Arkansas, places that have much to teach about our past. I started my quest last week by taking a walk through Fraternal Cemetery in Little Rock.
I got to know this cemetery back in 1976 while serving as editor of the Pulaski County Historical Review. One day late in the year an unsolicited manuscript arrived in my mailbox from a young man named Joe Neal, a Fayetteville resident who was a writer for Grapevine, a community-based alternative newspaper which had an outsized impact on that still-small college town. Neal's article was titled "Fraternal Cemetery: Reflections on a Southern Negro Graveyard."
Today Joe Neal is known as an authority on Arkansas birds; he became interested in Fraternal Cemetery as a child because his father was superintendent of the nearby U.S. National Cemetery. "We would," Neal wrote, "stand outside his office and wonder at the sad apparition of this old Negro cemetery." Neal's article became the first documented historical account of Fraternal and is still cited today.
Fraternal Cemetery indirectly goes back to the Civil War when a large area east of the Little Rock city boundary was designated as a burial place for the many war combatants who died in the military hospitals found in the capital city. Eventually this would become known as Oakland Cemetery.
Oakland was not exclusively for military graves. Nor was it available only to whites. From 1861-1863, some 1,416 Confederates were buried at Oakland, along with 2,073 Union soldiers after Little Rock fell to Union forces in September 1863. Among the general citizenry buried at Oakland were 439 whites, 1,069 blacks, and 299 "refugees," most of whom were probably enslaved people who fled to Little Rock after the city was captured.
We should not be surprised by Oakland being integrated in those early years. For generations, deceased slaves had been buried in the family cemeteries of their owners. Venerable Mount Holly Cemetery, the oldest burial ground still functioning in Little Rock, contains black graves. Oakland would become segregated as time passed.
As researcher Lakresha Dias has written, "Oakland Cemetery had been established to provide [a] burial ground for the Civil War dead, but it quickly became the new city cemetery." This was due in part to Mount Holly being "virtually closed as a public burying ground," according to a November 1877 article in the Arkansas Gazette.
In early 1888, a group of black fraternal groups, led by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, successfully petitioned the Little Rock City Council for a portion of Oakland to be designated for use by these "benevolent societies." On Sept. 8, 1890, Mayor William G. Whipple signed Ordinance 273 officially designating it as "Fraternal Cemetery."
The ordinance provided that Fraternal would be administered by a board of three "male citizens of Little Rock," one each from the black Odd Fellows, Masons, and the Knights of Tabor Order of Twelve. The fraternities had the land surveyed and plotted, installed cobblestone streets, and they erected an iron gate at the entrance. A granite marker proudly proclaimed "Free American Citizens."
Some of the most prominent black citizens of Little Rock were buried at Fraternal. Mifflin W. Gibbs, a Reconstruction era municipal judge, businessman, and long-serving Republican official, was buried there in July 1915, his hearse being followed by mourners in 14 black carriages.
Buried near Gibbs is Carrie Shepperson, a longtime educator and the mother of William Grant Still, who was known as "the Dean of Negro Composers."
Among the medical doctors buried at Fraternal is Dr. D.B. Gaines, an 1896 graduate of Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn. He was also the pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, one of the premier black churches in Little Rock. He published an important book on Arkansas black leadership, culture, and business in 1898, titled Racial Possibilities as Indicated by the Negroes of Arkansas, probably the first book published by a black Arkansan.
Theodore L. Pankey, a nationally recognized actor and singer, is buried at Fraternal. He appeared in several plays in New York City, had his own touring company which performed in Europe before King Edward VII in 1903, and by 1915 was a highly paid vaudeville performer. Theodore Pankey was the stepson of Josephine Pankey, the founder of the community of Pankey in western Little Rock, who is also buried at Fraternal.
Not surprisingly, the leaders of several black fraternities are found in the cemetery. Two of the founders of the Little Rock-based Mosaic Templars of America, Chester W. Keatts and John E. Bush, are buried at Fraternal. Keatts was a railway mail clerk and later a U.S. deputy marshal. Bush, who died in December 1916, is interred in the only mausoleum found in Fraternal Cemetery. The mausoleum is classically designed and constructed of Vermont granite.
Sadly, Fraternal Cemetery declined badly over time. Most likely this was due to the decline of the fraternal organizations during the Great Depression and the failure of the city to provide funding for upkeep. In 1950 Oakland Cemetery had a staff, mechanical equipment, and a budget of $14,000, while Fraternal had one sexton, a mule, and a budget of $400.
Even when the city sold part of Fraternal in the 1950s, the income was put into the city treasury. As Joe Neal wrote, "Jim Crow had a strange career in the graveyards."
T.T. "Old Tom" Thomas became sexton in 1920 and served until 1970, a remarkable tenure for a man who never received a pay raise during his five decades of work. He was paid the same fee in 1920 for digging a grave as in 1970. Thomas was able to survive by fencing off unused parts of the cemetery to raise crops, chickens, and hogs. He usually grew a large crop of sweet potatoes, which he shared with the community during the Great Depression. Until it burned in 1970, Thomas and his wife lived in a small frame home on the grounds.
In 1974, following the election of two black city councilmen in 1968, the city budgeted $12,000 for Fraternal, and other improvements followed. The city council consolidated Fraternal and Oakland in 1975, giving it the name of Oakland-Fraternal Cemetery.
Correction: In my column of Feb. 17 on the tragic fire in 1958 at the Negro Boys Industrial School I mistakenly wrote that the mass grave of 16 victims had never been marked with a memorial. A marker listing all 21 victims of the fire was unveiled at the cemetery in April of last year, 59 years after the event.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.
Editorial on 02/24/2019
Print Headline: Exploring Little Rock's Fraternal Cemetery