Spirits of Oakwood: Volunteer actors portray people buried in the cemetery

Published on Saturday, 22 March 2014 21:14 - Written by Rebecca Hoeffner rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

It’s the 10th anniversary of “Spirits of Oakwood” and that means some of the historic tour’s most beloved characters are returning.

“They’re the best of the best,” Maxine Herbst, director of the tour, said. “We chose eight of our best ‘spirits’ through the years, the ones that people always ask about.”

The Spirits of Oakwood is part of the annual Azalea and Spring Flower Trail. The program is held at Oakwood Cemetery, and volunteer actors portray people buried in the cemetery. Hundreds of people attend the event, Mrs. Herbst said.

One of this year’s actors is Sheryl Chester, portraying Cynthia Rabb.

Ms. Rabb was an African-American woman born into slavery in Florida in 1815. She was given the last name “Rabb” because it was the last name of her owners, a common practice of the time.

“She was buried with the family — in the family plot because she was so dear to them,” Mrs. Chester said. “That was unusual.”

Ms. Rabb’s gravestone reads “Our Beloved Black Mammy.” It is unknown when she died.

About 100 black slaves are buried in the cemetery, but most of them are buried in a separate part of the cemetery, away from the whites.

“People say, ‘Why do you want to do this? It’s belittling,’” Mrs. Chester said about playing the role. “It is what it is. It’s history, and I want to acknowledge the history. We all stand on the shoulders of slaves.”

Another actor in the tour, Henry Bell III, is portraying his grandfather, Henry Bell Sr., who was a third-generation Smith County resident, and prominent banker who was known for his involvement in the community. Bell Elementary School in Tyler is named after him. He died in 1951.

For the first time, the tour has received permission to explain the Jewish section of the cemetery, Mrs. Herbst said.

Tours will be held every 10 minutes, from 1 to 4:30 p.m., March 29. The tour is $10 per person. For more information, call 903-593-4642.