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History advocates work to save local African American cemetery from development

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Scruggs family cemetery

A map showing the location of the Scruggs family cemetery just east of Carters Creek Pike.

A small African American cemetery in Franklin will likely be saved thanks to the efforts of a local attorney and historian to identify descendants of those at rest.

To the east of where Carters Creek Pike intersects with the old pike is a small cemetery where at least half a dozen members of the Scruggs family are buried.

Franklin resident Tina Cahalan Jones and Nashville attorney Allen Brown are searching for the descendants of Edward “Ned” Scruggs, who was a 13th regiment United States Colored Troops soldier during the Civil War. 

Jones has spent years researching the histories of local African Americans, particularly those who fought during the Civil War, for her blog, Slaves to Soldiers.

Jones previously wrote a blog post about Scruggs, which is how Brown contacted her. Brown works pro-bono on cases involving the imminent development of cemeteries. 

Under state law, a cemetery cannot be purchased. But because many old cemeteries are falling into disrepair and lack large-scale, permanent markers, they are easy targets for development.

“They pick on historic Black cemeteries the worst, because Blacks couldn't afford headstones back in the 1800s and most of the 1900s,” Brown said.

Brown has taken on five other gravesite preservation cases in recent years, winning four. Most notably, he helped defend the property rights of the Joyce family with the Bell Town Cemetery in Cheatham County. It’s the final resting place to five generations of the family, who are descended from slaves, including veterans from all the major U.S. conflicts in the 20th century. 

In order to fight the development of the Scruggs cemetery, Brown needs to hear from descendants who have memories of visiting the graveyard. So far, he has three family members named in his petition against the developer, RBP Tennessee.

The family names relating to Scruggs include Thompson, Key, Reynolds and Bowling.

From her research, Jones has found Scruggs enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 24, after helping construct forts in Nashville. He fought in campaigns in Nashville and Johnsonville before mustering out of service after sickness and injury in January 1866.

The Scruggs family sold their land off Carter’s Creek to the Cannon family in 1921, but the deed shows they reserved the quarter-acre cemetery and rights to access.

Linda Bowling-Robins, who lives in Nashville, is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ned Scruggs. As a child, she recalled trips down to Franklin with her grandmother, who would point out local landmarks and tell stories about the family graveyard, though Bowling-Robins was never certain of its exact whereabouts. 

Bowling-Robins said she and her family were “gung-ho” about fighting to preserve their ancestral gravesite.

“You’re messing with history, you’re messing with a legacy here,” she said. “We can’t allow you to just build over these bodies.”

Like many old Black cemeteries, Brown said the markers were aluminium, and Google Earth images appear to show they have already been bulldozed.

Still, Bowling-Robins wants to mark off the cemetery and add appropriate plaques of remembrance. She’d like for it to be “a place of tranquility and meditation.”

Brown said he takes the destruction of cemeteries seriously, calling it a “canary in the coal mine.” 

“That’s one of the last acts before that society fails,” he said.

If you are a family member, contact Jones at CahalanJones@yahoo.com or Brown at allen@jallenbrownpllc.com

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