By Kimberly Blair
Flanked by his daughter and grandson, Walter McQueen of Cantonment became emotional when they walked down a newly blazed trail leading him to a freshly cleared patch in the woods and saw the headstones of Muscogee residents dating back to the late 1800s.
The 68-year-old had been trying, since he was a teenager, to find the black section of the Old Muscogee cemetery, which had disappeared behind vines, brush and trees and swallowed up by leaf debris decades ago.
In May, Gulf Power Environmental Affairs and Plant Crist employees teamed up with the Northwest Florida Water Management District staff to begin clearing the vegetation to provide families access.
“This is amazing to me because I tell you my granddad Elias McQueen is here,” McQueen said. “My grandmother told me he died in 1946, a year before I was born. And I have an uncle, Jim McQueen, here who died of polio at 16 years old. That’s what’s amazing to me about this area.”
McQueen couldn’t find his own family members’ gravesites. He believes the sites are nearer to the River Annex Road under an oak tree, in an area that has yet to be cleared. But he’s nevertheless grateful to be able to stand in a portion of the historic site that was once a part of a thriving timber town that no longer exists. What once was Muscogee is now part of Cantonment.
“Words cannot explain what I feel in my heart,” he said. “I have always thought, ‘When are we going to be able to find these graves?’ This brings back so much of our history. Naturally, families want to know where their family members are buried. This gives us so much closure.”
McQueen wants to help with future efforts to restore the cemetery and plans to locate the families of the people in the graves that have been found.
McQueen’s grandson, Kaleb Gulley, 19, who just graduated from high school, has had a fascination about the town his grandfather always told him about and was thrilled when he read a news story about the cleanup effort.
He was also clearly excited to finally be walking through the cemetery as he searched for possible signs of his great-grandfather’s grave.
“When I was riding on the school bus, I’d look directly out here and think, ‘Wow there’s a cemetery there,’” Gulley said. “There is so much history in Muscogee, and I like to hear about the lumber mills and post office and the people who used to live here. I’m enjoying this moment.”
Gulley is also looking forward to passing on to his children, someday, his grandfather’s stories about the ghost town and show them the cemetery.
Rebekah McQueen-Morris, 32, said there used to be an African-American Holiness church across the dirt road from the cemetery. “The members were buried here in the segregated section,” she said.
To be sure, the site is a reminder of the days of segregation. It also provides a snapshot of the people who supported the timber industry, served in the military and, as McQueen-Morris pointed out, had acquired some financial means based on some of the ornate monuments and marble headstones they left behind.
“I grew up in Cantonment, and it’s a blessing that we have another piece of the puzzle to our history,” she said.
“A lot of times we try to research and learn things about our ancestors but we don’t have the resources, or something like this to occur to help us find out about our history,” she said. “Once we find out about our history, where we come from, we find out who we are.”