Rodney Hawkins set out to uncover pieces of hidden history, starting with his own family.
“We have to be able to give flowers to our ancestors in some shape or form. But we can’t do that if we don’t know where they are,” said Hawkins.
A conversation with his great-grandmother changed the course of the next couple of years.
“And that was the spark of going down this rabbit hole of understanding our history and then realizing that we had a cemetery that was in disarray and needed to be restored,” he said.
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It led Hawkins and his family deep into the Nacogdoches backwoods.
“I put out the call to family members to say, 'hey we’re going to do this' and they came from across the nation to help restore the cemetery,” he said.
Hawkins, a journalist, realized he wasn’t alone. Decedents of enslaved people across the United States have ancestors whose burial sites have been neglected, forgotten, and often paved over.
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“I’m very fortunate that our cemetery wasn’t at a place where we couldn’t bring it back,” he said. “But there are cemeteries, for example, that has a gas station on top of them where you would drive past it and wouldn’t even know.”
A series of stories and a serendipitous encounter with art gallery owner Daisha Board brought Hawkins to this moment. He is now the producer and creative director for an exhibition at the Daisha Board Gallery in Dallas.
It’s called "The Mount: A Photo Collection on Restoring America’s Buried Past." Images of his journey, captured by photographer Kwesi Yanful, expose Hawkins’ quest for the truth.
“To have an exhibition like this that’s so powerful in lineage, in history, in ancestry, we needed to show it,” Board said.
Board is known nationally for providing platforms for artists from various cultural backgrounds.
“For me to have a space that does not censor them, that gives them the freedom to express themselves in any way possible, that’s vital,” she said.
Board said over the Juneteenth holiday, people packed the gallery for what turned out to be a full-circle moment. A photo illustrating one of Hawkins’ ancestors purchasing assets as a free man 148 years ago on June 19 hangs on the gallery wall.
“He was buying cattle, property, some of which we own to this day,” Hawkins said.
“For some people it’s emotional,” Board said. “Some people resonate with the people in the images.”
Hawkins hopes his journey to uncover hidden, but significant history inspires others to do the same.
“We have to cherish those moments no matter how ugly or painful or shameful they may be. I’m proud of this,” he said. “I’m proud of where we came from.”
The cemetery Hawkins and his family uncovered is now recognized by the State of Texas as an historic landmark under the guidance of the Texas Historic Commission.
Hawkins’ family lineage was also a springboard for the "Lone Star Slavery Project," spearheaded by historian and researcher Kyle Ainsworth at Stephen F. Austin State University.
The Mount: A Photo Collection on Restoring America’s Buried Past can be seen at the Daisha Board Gallery through Saturday, July 9. For more information visit https://daishaboardgallery.com/