‘Last Rites,’ NPT’s latest Citizenship Project film, premieres April 1

Last Rites - Saving Tennessee's Black Cemeteries

Creating cemeteries was one of the first steps undertaken by freed Black people after the Civil War. Despite their importance to their communities, demographic, societal and other changes resulted in some cemeteries falling into disrepair and neglect over time. Last Rites: Saving Tennessee’s Black Cemeteries, the latest documentary in NPT’s Citizenship Project series, focuses on efforts to protect these historic spaces. The 30-minute program premieres on-air and online Monday, April 1, at 8 p.m.

“When I think about what freedmen and freed women endured at the end of the Civil War, one of the very first things that they wanted to do was to establish places for themselves, places that they could call their own,” says Dr. Tiffany Momon, assistant professor of history, at The University of the South, in Last Rites. “And when I think about cemeteries and the lives of freed men and freed women, they were finally given an opportunity to bury their loved ones the way they wanted to … with dignity and respect.”

Lebanon’s Rest Hill Cemetery might be considered a success story because the city became involved with preservation efforts more than 20 years ago. Harry Watkins, vice president of the Wilson County Civic League, is pleased with the progress so far, but hopes something – perhaps a tour– can be established to highlight the cemetery. “It is one of the last vestiges of our African American community that still exists,” Watkins says in Last Rites. “A lot of the old schools have been torn down, but the cemetery is still here, and I guess it will be here for another 100 years.”

“It’s important to preserve these cemeteries, but it’s also important to do it the right way,” Dr. Carroll Van West, director of the MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation, says in the film. “Get into those neighborhoods but do so with respect for those who still live there.”

Beck Knob Cemetery in Chattanooga has also met a level of success in that it has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to these sites, Last Rites features Benevolent Cemetery (Murfreesboro), Mt. Ararat Cemetery (Nashville), Touissant L’Ouverture Cemetery (Franklin), Union Ridge Cemetery (Wartrace), and Zion Cemetery (Memphis).

Last Rites: Saving Tennessee’s Black Cemeteries will re-air on NPT Sunday, April 7, at 6:30 p.m. and Monday, April 8, at 11:30 p.m. Airtimes on NPT2 are Saturday, April 13, at 5 p.m. and Sunday, April 14, at 1 p.m. It will be available for online viewing at pbs.org/video.

The documentary was produced by Ed Jones, whose most recent Citizenship Project documentary, Uprooted, received a Midsouth Regional Emmy nomination for best historical documentary in 2023. Last Rites was narrated by Jackie Welch Schlicher, who also narrated Uprooted.

Last Rites: Saving Tennessee’s Black Cemeteries is made possible by the financial support of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, Tennessee Education Lottery, Dell Technologies, Delta Dental of Tennessee, and Ryman Hospitality Properties Foundation.

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