The history in East Tennessee cemeteries is well-documented thanks to Robert McGinnis

3:36 PM, Jan 28, 2011   |    comments
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More than 30 years of work lies in the pages of more than 30 books. Books that document East Tennessee's history. But one Knoxville man finds that history in an interesting place.

You may drive by the Old Gray Cemetery and not even take a second look or you may notice it and think its nothing, but tombstones. But one Knoxville man looks beyond the grave markers and discovers what lies beneath.

"It's a cross section of life for any community. You have the very rich and the very poor in the same burying place. In death, it makes no difference how much money you had in life, you're in the same place, basically," says Robert McGinnis, an East Tennessee cemetery historian.

Just sit with McGinnis for five minutes and you will find he's a pretty interesting man with an ear for history. "I was the kid that when I was growing up sat back in the corner and listened to my great grandmother's stories. I can remember my first visit to Gray's Cemetery downtown...and hearing the stories this persons related to this person and what that one did," says McGinnis.

And that's where it all began. "Genealogy is a passion. Genealogy is the background for all this information. It grows on you and you can't put it down," says McGinnis.

It certainly grew on him to the point where he tracked down tombstones in even the smallest of graveyards. "You've got to find it first. There are different ways of finding it. You can be driving down the old mountain roads, look up and see a group of trees up on the hill there, unkept usually. That's a pretty good sign that's a cemetery. High on a windy hill," says McGinnis.

And he documents the history inside the cemeteries. "A project that has encompassed almost 33 years now of cemeteries in the Middle and East Tennessee regions, 16 counties, four declared projects and almost one million inscriptions, burial inscriptions," says McGinnis.

He's taken all this information and packed it into 34 books that not only tell you which grave is, where and who it belongs to, but it goes one step further. "We add in information like wills, birth certificates, information on deaths, obituaries, marriage records. Fill it out a little bit, give it more of a life story."

Like William Ganoway Brownlow, a governor of Tennessee during the Civil War. Robert doesn't speak fondly of Brownlow's background. "But he is an East Tennnesean. And even though I's a southerner and my southern upbringing says I can't stand him. He's still one of our brother," says McGinnis.

Robert McGinnis bleeds East Tennessee and encourages all of us to pay attention to our southern ties. "You may not be interested in it now, but come along another 20 years even you will be interested in your family tree."

And he has a special connection with the people of this area. "Their sense of life. No matter what the hardship was, they always moved forward, endured," says McGinnis. "And that's that enduring quality that's in each of us who are their descendants, that makes us what we are today."

And what we are, what we were is all well documented thanks to Robert McGinnis. He's one of "Your Stories" because there's no place like this one.



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