From the 1890s and perhaps two decades earlier, the Sewanee Colored Cemetery served as the principal burial ground for the Black people of Sewanee. Today the land—about 1.3 acres bounded on the north by Georgia Avenue, the east by Kennerly Road, and the south by Palmetto Avenue—is still a vital and cherished place for the people whose families have been laid to rest here for many generations.
For much of that time, the Colored Cemetery’s western boundary was the substantial stone wall that surrounded the University Cemetery, where white families affiliated with the University and Episcopal Church (and, on rare occasions, their Black servants) were buried. In 1964, amid the desegregation of the University and its local public schools, white students at the University dismantled the wall, unofficially ending the racial segregation of the two cemeteries. The remnants of the western wall are still visible near the Georgia Avenue entrance; the stones were repurposed in the wall on its edges.
The cemetery remains today a distinctive place cherished by descendants of Sewanee’s historic Black community. A “Sewanee Colored Cemetery Association” of the neighborhood’s leading male citizens independently governed the burial grounds for much of its history. The oldest legible headstones are date 1900, and some 170 of the people buried in the cemetery can be identified by the names on them. But there likely are many older graves. A ground-penetrating radar scan of the burial ground in the spring of 2022 detected from 90 to 130 or more graves no longer visible to the eye. This images shows the western half of the cemetery from the GPR scanner. All of the white shapes without red dots are possible unmarked graves. If more permanent headstones were not affordable or desired, families may have marked graves with a field stone, by edging them with broken glass and pottery, or by sweeping them so that grass did not grow on the gravesite. Markers like these were traditional burial practices of African Americans and may have disappeared because of time or because cleaning crews later mistook them for trash.
One of the oldest markers (1900) is that of Henderson Willis, born enslaved in 1835 in West Tennessee. During the Civil War, Willis emancipated himself from his owner and enlisted in the newly formed United States Colored Troops. He was among the few survivors from the Confederate attack on Fort Pillow, where troops under the command of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred more than 230 of Willis’s Black comrades.
At war’s end he married and later studied at the Nashville Normal and Theological Institute. In the 1890s, the white Episcopal priest at Sewanee’s parish church recruited him to Sewanee to help build up the local Black church, St. Paul’s on the Mountain, where Willis served as lay reader until his death on April 8, 1900.
Henderson Willis’s story is distinctive in some of its details, but it shares much with the larger story of the many African American people who migrated to Sewanee in the decades after emancipation, established their homes, brought up their children, and, as “Sewaneeians,” made this community for themselves and