Last week, a couple of friends found an old and forgotten cemetery in the woods in Stanton, Haywood County, Tennessee. Long forgotten by the town and family members, their markers dirty and in disrepair, five individuals sleep the among the trees and critters aching to be discovered and remembered once more. Who were these people and why were they buried in the woods. Was it once the former location of a church that has lost it members and now only the cemetery marks its former existence? Or is it simply the hands of time that have enveloped the land and works to obliterate their memories? This was a mystery that is screaming to be solved! I’ll write my findings for each story… each mystery that I can uncover. We begin with the tale of Herman Sales.
Young Herman Sales was born on May 12, 1895 in Shelby County, Tennessee to John and Letha Sales. He is their firstborn.
During the next five years, many changes occur in young Herman’s life. His mother has three more children and his father abandons the family. On the evening of June 27, 1900, the twelfth US Federal census was taken and found 5-year-old Herman, his mother Letha, brothers Raney and Billy and sister Hollie living with John’s parents, Albert and Mandy Sales and their three minor children still living at home. It’s an extremely crowed home with 10 people sharing the small space and everyone of age helps out on the family farm. Herman’s mother Letha is shown as being 38 years old and divorced. None of the family has gone to school and no one can read or write.
The 1910 US Federal Census was taken on Apr. 28, 1910 finds Herman’s parents back together once again and more children have been added to the household. Fourteen-year-old Herman is living with his parents, John and Letha and seven siblings in a rented home in Shelby County, TN on Central College and Kerrville Rd. His parents have been married for more than 16 years and in addition to the eight children living, his mother has lost two of her babies. Herman’s mother age is still shown as 38. She is 10 years older than her husband and I imagine it’s vanity that leads her to tell the enumerator the small fib. Herman’s father is a farmer in his own right and needs the assistance of his oldest sons, so Herman and his 12-year-old brother Raney work the farm as laborers with their father. Neither one can read or write and have not attended school at all during the year. In fact, none of the Sales children have attended school in 1920 and out of his entire family, only his father John is shown as knowing how to read or write.
In June of 1917, Herman registers for the WWI draft. He gave his year as birth as 1895 but did not give a month or day, perhaps because he didn’t know them. He told the registrar he worked for Earl Griffin in Fayette County and he was married. He was medium build, medium height with brown eyes and black hair. When it came time to sign his draft card, he could only make his mark because he still did not know how to read or write.
Just seven shorts months before his death, the 1920 US Federal Census was taken in Haywood County, TN and tells us he was black, married and the father of two babies. Herman’s wife Anna, 18-month old son Clifton and newborn daughter Lulu Bell lived with him in a rented shack on Hillville Road in Stanton where he farmed the land to make a living for his young family. His next door neighbors, Lee Powell and Edwin Moore, one black, one white, were also farmers and they worked the land together. His brother, Raney lived close by with his wife Rosie and their year-old daughter. A nephew, 7-year-old Roland Hamer also lived with them. Roland’s headstone was also found in the cemetery. His story will be next.
Although we don’t know the cause of Herman’s death, we do know that his headstone tells us he thought about the needs of his family in case of his death. The seal at the top of his stone is from the Masonic Templars of America, a black fraternal organization founded in 1883 by two former slaves, John Edward Bush and Chester W. Keatts, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The organization originally provided illness, death, and burial insurance, including a headstone for a small monthly membership fee during an era of segregation when few basic services were available to black people. By being a member of the MTA and paying his monthly dues, Herman ensured his family had the money for his burial and a stone in which to mark his grave. During a difficult time, his pre-planning ensured the burden of his funeral cost did not fall to his family and enabled us to find his final resting place 90 years later to tell his story.