Community Collaboration Brings Historic Cemetery Back to Life

A member of the Avery family brushes away debris from the spot where her ancestor Mamie was buried.

In the woods behind Tarrant’s Rushing Spring Baptist Church, there’s a concrete slab in the ground. Shaded by trees and overgrown with thorny vines, it marks the spot where Mamie Avery was buried — and reburied.

Mamie, who was Black and the wife of a freed slave, died in the early 1900s. She was one of the first in the surrounding area to be interred in a metal casket – possibly a sign of wealth in those days. Soon after that, thinking she was buried with money, a group of white people dug up Mamie’s body.

The excavation, however, proved fruitless for the would-be grave robbers. They callously left Mamie’s remains above ground only to be discovered later by her family, who reburied her and poured concrete on top of the grave this time.

Mamie’s grave is one of more than 300 that have been uncovered through a collaborative effort by Rushing Spring Baptist Church, Drummond Company, the City of Tarrant and United Way Hands On, the volunteer center for United Way of Central Alabama.

At a recent volunteer day, dozens of representatives from Drummond, Tarrant city leaders, church members and descendants of the founding families of the area, including the Averys, came out to continue the cleanup and restoration of the overgrown site.

Rushing Spring Cemetery, which has always been associated with the church but had been abandoned since the mid-1960s, dates back to the 1890s, when the church was established.

Family History

Charles Avery Jr., who is head of the deacons at the church, said he has wanted to see the restoration of the cemetery for many years.

“The only thing my brother and I hate is that our father is not alive to see it…It’s a joy to see this work,” Avery said.

Dina Avery, Charles’ daughter, said the cleanup day was far from the first time she had been to the site.

“During the summer, coming to the cemetery was like a field trip,” Ms. Avery said. “My grandfather Charles Sr. and I would walk all the way up here. He would teach me about the history, and he would always take me to the area where his grandparents are buried.”

Ms. Avery, an assistant professor in the biotechnology program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is the author of Jumping the Train: An Extraordinary True Story. Published in 2019, the book recounts her family history, following her ancestors from slavery to building a community in Alabama.

Among the many buried at Rushing Spring are numerous Avery ancestors, as well as other families foundational to the area of Tarrant. A number of plots have also been found for “Buffalo Soldiers,” who were the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. military.

The restoration of the cemetery is important, Ms. Avery said, because of the stories held within it.

“I always wondered approximately how many people were buried here, and I learned today it’s over 300. When I was told that, I immediately thought, ‘Each of them has a story. We can’t forget them.’ It’s so important that we continue to come up here because of their stories and because they worked so hard for us to get where we are.”

-Ms. Dina Avery

The Cleanup Effort

Among the many volunteers on the scene was Tarrant Mayor Wayman Newton, who first learned about the cemetery through Charles Jr.

“We met for about an hour and a half,” Newton said. “Deacon Avery told me the history of the community here, and when he told me about the cemetery, that really piqued my interest because I’m a history buff.”

In addition to Newton personally working at the site, the City of Tarrant’s Department of Public Works provided trucks and drivers to help transport volunteers from the church to the cemetery. Newton also had subsequent conversations with Drummond Company, which led to its participation in the project, as well.

For the cemetery work, United Way Hands On took care of the planning and much of the onsite project management. Hands on also provided most of the tools used for the site-clearing efforts.

Rachael Upton, Director of Hands On, said the collaborative effort on display was astonishing.

“Projects like these are our favorite type to tackle at Hands On. With so many volunteers, it didn’t take very long to clear more than 50 years of growth over this cemetery. Work like this is a great example of the power that comes from uniting with others.”

-Rachael Upton, Director of Hands On

Ron Damron, President and Chief Operating Officer for Drummond, who was also at the cemetery, said it’s important that the company does more than simply offer jobs to residents of Tarrant.

“Part of our footprint here in Tarrant is the ABC coke plant. Of course, that’s a big employer, a big tax base, but you’ve got to go beyond that,” Damron said. “You’ve got to get into the community, understand what the people need, what they want.”

While dozens of Drummond employees have done work at the site in recent weeks, Damron said the value the work brings to employees’ lives is obvious – and it’s moving to him. He said, “Working alongside someone and suddenly hearing, ‘Wow that’s my great-grandmother!’ – that makes it all worthwhile.”