The Odd Fellows Cemetery is a historically important and culturally relevant cemetery in East Knoxville. This six-acre burial ground was established in the 1880s by multiple African American fraternal and sororal community organizations, all of which disbanded in the 1930s.
Since then, approximately 90 percent of the estimated 6,000 burial markers have been lost to overgrown vegetation and vandalism. Sporadic clean-up efforts have done little to curb the ongoing deterioration. Currently without ownership, the cemetery reflects the neglect and disenfranchisement of the community and visually exhibits a lack of pride.
In 2008, Katherine Ambroziak, associate professor of architecture and associate dean for academic affairs and research in the College of Architecture and design, began working with the Knoxville Re-Animation Coalition (KRC), a grass roots organization in East Knoxville that focuses on educating and creating social wealth among Knoxville’s African American communities through projects that illuminate and valorize its past achievements. The result of the collaboration was the award-winning Odd Fellows Cemetery Reclamation Program, an evolving, long-term research, design, and engagement initiative that addresses the potential for a deteriorating cultural landscape to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into the social and spiritual lives of the communities that surround it. Incorporating multidisciplinary research, creative activity, service, and practicum, it acts as a paradigm for academic scholarship and has become the focus or testing model for many socially and culturally geared courses and student activities coordinated through the College of Architecture and Design.
Frequent discourse with the community and the city have clarified the project’s mission. Through a series of public workshops, Ambroziak and the KRC identified key objectives: to develop an interactive memorial landscape that promotes the unique cultural heritage embodied in the cemetery; stop the ongoing deterioration; make the grounds safe, easier to navigate, and easier to maintain; continue to involve the community in the planning, design, and future activities; and make the cemetery a place of pride for the community.
Working with the KRC, the City of Knoxville, and student and community volunteers, Ambroziak has developed various research, design, service, and service-learning projects that investigate the opportunities and implications set out in the public workshops. These range from research surveys to locate and document all remaining material culture that give clues to the history of the cemetery to active celebrations in the form of planting or illumination events that bring volunteers and the community together.
One of the most impactful projects has been the design and construction of the Community Passage, a network of universally designed earthen berms that serve as walkways that provide safe and inviting access and link various parts of the neighborhood. This project, which has already involved over 1200 student volunteers over a five-year span, constitutes the first implemented change to the cemetery in nearly a century. Giving life to the abandoned burial grounds, Community Passage now enjoys the progress of a sister project, Community Pause, a series of dedicated public spaces in the cemetery where members of the community are encouraged to engage with the historic landscape, gather in conversation, and take claim of their cultural heritage. Together these projects have worked to bring about a change in perception by community members regarding the value of public land and a greater sense of empowerment experienced by participants to bring about healthy change.