The water oak, or Quercus nigra, is one of Jacksonville’s most prized native shade trees. It has a spreading canopy and substantial presence in the landscape. As measured by Tree Commission chairman Kenny Griffin, the Cemetery oak is 48 inches in diameter at chest height. Although this is an impressive size, the Alabama state champion water oak in Montgomery county measures 150 inches. Since this is an adaptable but mostly bottomland species, it is possible that the champion tree is in a more moist location. Water oaks are in the red oak family and can be identified by their leaves that are shaped like a duck’s foot. The small acorns provide good food for wildlife, including squirrels, deer, turkey and bobwhite quail.
This tree probably sprouted between 1788 and 1813. Imagine the events it has witnessed. Alabama became a state in 1819. In 1833, Chief Ladiga sold the 320 acres that were to become the City of Jacksonville for $2,000 in silver. The graves of early Jacksonville settlers surround the tree, with familiar names like Pelham, Hoke, Francis, Alexander, Forney and Venable. According to JSU historian Paul Beezley, many of the families had defined plots, and some of these included the burial sites of family slaves. Other early graves of the enslaved are located at the south side of the graveyard, as it slopes down toward New Hope Baptist Church, an historically African American church which was officially organized in 1872.
A striking feature of the cemetery is the 1863 monument to Lieutenant Colonel John Pelham, located in front of the water oak. Five generals are buried in the cemetery, along with many soldiers, both Confederate and Union. Across the lane from Pelham’s grave is a memorial to Major Dwayne Williams of Jacksonville, who was killed in the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. The Jacksonville Veterans’ Memorial lists the name of soldiers from the two World Wars, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
As a visitor strolls through the cemetery the numerous graves to small children become apparent. Before the days of modern medicine and vaccines, many died too soon after birth and their graves were marked with little lambs. Emma W. Woodward, her tombstone reads, died in 1855, aged “7y 3 mo 6d. This lovely flower, too pure for earth, has been transplanted to the Paradise above, where buds and blossoms never faile, nor droop and die.”
Many generations have been comforted by the outstretched branches of our shady oak tree, one of many oaks in the Jacksonville cemetery. The oak is symbolic of strength and faithful protection. Another common native tree in the cemetery is the Eastern redcedar. As an evergreen, this tree is favored as a symbol of everlasting life. Dogwoods line the cemetery lane. Since they bloom near Eastertime and have an unusual cross-shaped bloom, they are recognized as a symbol of the resurrection. Crape myrtles are a more recent addition to the cemetery landscaping. They represent love, summer’s abundance, and because of their hardiness, immortal life.
The Jacksonville City Cemetery contains many stories that deserve to be remembered. Among the most interesting are the stories of the city’s beginnings and one of our most famous residents, the “Gallant Pelham.” In conjunction with his festival this month, free cemetery tours by local historians including Dr. Paul Beezley were held on Saturday, March 16th.