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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Grisso Cemetery: Where history runs deep

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Photo by Emily McIntosh The gate to the Grisso Cemetery was erected in 1975 by Earl Harber in an effort to restore the cemetery. The land for both the main and west cemeteries was donated by Jacob and Martha Grisso, who were prominent slave owners.
Black History Month is upon us and although the tri-county area has a very low black population, the election of President Barack Obama has made black history mean more to everyone in the United States.

Here in Fulton County there was once a time before the Civil War when slaves were owned by some of the wealthy families in the area. These slaves would never have thought that one day blacks would be free and equal citizens, much less that a black president would be elected.

Grisso Cemetery in Fulton County is one of two cemeteries in the county that has slaves buried in it. Grisso Cemetery is unique in that both slaves and slave owners occupy the same site. Normally, slaves and their owners would be buried in separate cemeteries because of prejudices that owners and other whites held for blacks.

The old cemetery is on Enterprise Road west of Viola and across Bennett's River past the Enterprise Baptist Church and the Pickren Hall Cemetery. Like many pre-Civil War cemeteries, Grisso Cemetery is tucked away on a quiet, county road and easy to miss if a person is not looking for the sign pointing down to the cemetery. The cemetery cannot be seen from the road because of all the cedars and other trees that have grown up around it.

There are, however, two Grisso Cemeteries. The main cemetery has at least 10 slaves buried alongside residents and slave owners. The other Grisso Cemetery is just west of the main cemetery and seems to have been created after the main cemetery because of the lack of space in the small patch of land the main cemetery is on.

The main cemetery is shaded by the shelter of the trees, which gives a visitor the feeling of peace and safety. Many of the graves are marked by moss covered stones. Those that still have head stones have what was written on them worn away by time and the elements. A few of them have faded, silk flowers lying on them.

The cemeteries are named after Jacob and Martha Grisso, who donated the land and were prominent slave owners. Grisso himself is buried in the western cemetery along with 20 others, six of which have been identified.

According to Pauline Hodges, a woman who has family buried in the cemetery and who has done extensive research on people who are buried there, Jacob Grisso wasn't buried in a separate cemetery from the slaves because of prejudice.

Hodges said Jacob's wife, Martha, was a "high strung" woman and Jacob drank a lot. The two frequently got into arguments, and Martha would always tell her husband she wouldn't bury him in the main cemetery, which he wanted to be buried in when he died. When Jacob died, Martha was true to her word.

The names of the slaves buried in the main cemetery have been lost throughout history, but one name remains. A slave, who was known only as Allie, was a cook for the family of Martin Harber. "I was told she was a nice lady and the best cook in Arkansas," Hodges said.

Among the silence of the cemetery, one will notice a grave that stands out from the rest. One story revolves around two slave brothers who were rock masons, and the Grissos would rent them out to build chimneys in the area. Earl Harber, a man who restored the cemetery to its former glory in 1975, recounted the story of the two brothers to Hodges, who wrote what he said.

"Jacob Grisso owned two slaves which were brothers. They were rock masons and Mr. Grisso rented them out to build chimneys and to do other rock work. One of the brothers died of small pox and was buried in the cemetery. The remaining brother, with the permission of Mr. Grisso, took a wagon and team of steers and built the monument which now covers the grave,'" Harber related to Hodges.

The monument is stone and meticulously built. Each stone was carefully chipped and shaped to form the prism-like shape around the grave. The stones piled on the grave are massive and would have taken several hours each to shape and put in the right place. Whoever this slave was, he must have deeply respected and loved his brother to put so much labor into his monument. A marker at the head of the grave says, "Grisso Slave 1857." Next to the grave lies another marker, which also says, "Grisso Slave." This grave is believed to be the grave of the brother who built the monument.

A marker for a black U.S. soldier is also in the cemetery. Though President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, it wasn't until 1863 that the Union Army accepted black soldiers. These soldiers were fighting and dying for their freedom long before Martin Luther King, Jr. was advocating equal rights. When the war ended in 1865, the soldier must have come to Fulton County because he had family and friends in the area. Nothing else is known about him.

It is believed there are about six other slaves in the cemetery, but their names have been lost to history. But, their spirits live on through those who remember what it was like in the time of Jim Crow laws and segregation. The blacks, fearing the possibility of being lynched or beaten to death in a riot while some white people looked on and feared what the world was coming to. Both sides were hoping for something better. Their hope has now been fulfilled in the accomplishment we have made in accepting "that all men are created equal."

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