Bell Town Residents Can’t Visit Cemetery

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Robert Walker at his Grandmother’s grave. Photo by Peter White

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – Cheatham County District Attorney Ray Crouch is submitting evidence to a grand jury that meets Tuesday, September 5. They will decide whether or not to file criminal charges against Anthony Townsend and his two sons for intimidating and harassing people who wanted to visit the Bell Town cemetery.

Underlying the alleged criminal acts is a land dispute about whether, or under what circumstances, a private landowner can take or control a public right of way.  The most recent troubles began more than a year ago.

Broken headstone at Bell Town Cemetery. Photo Courtesy Allen Brown

In June 2016 Kenneth Joyce and Jeffrey Crutcher went to clean up the small cemetery on Sneed Rd. where African Americans have buried their dead since Reconstruction.

They couldn’t get past the gate Anthony Townsend and his two sons, Joseph and Clay, installed across the road and secured with a lock. So Kenneth pulled the pins on the gate hinge. The two men cut down the high grass at the graveyard, cleared the brush, and left the way they came.

A year passed. The grass needed cutting again so in May this year the two men returned to clear the brush and cut the grass. Joyce’s two elderly aunts were coming to visit. Both the aunts were born in Bell Town but had moved away years ago. Kenneth Joyce wanted to make the cemetery presentable for perhaps their last visit.

Headstones with Townsend construction dumpsters in the background.
Photo courtesy Allen Brown

When the two men got to the gate it was closed with a chain but not locked. So they unwound it and drove up to the cemetery with their weed-wacker and garden tools. They put in about three hours work when the Townsends showed up, blocked in their car, and called the Cheatham County Sheriff’s office.

Joyce and Crutcher were charged with two counts of trespass and one for vandalism for allegedly doing $800 damage to the gate.

The case went to trial August 9. Attorney Allen Brown got all charges dropped at no cost to Joyce or Crutcher. But the Townsends were not charged with creating a public nuisance for installing a gate across a pubic road, keeping people from visiting the cemetery, and harassing them if they tried.

Gravestone with pile of manure at Bell Town cemetery. Photo courtesy of Allen Brown.

“I don’t understand any human not letting anyone of any color see their loved ones at their gravesite,” Joyce said. Joyce said he has been going to the cemetery for the last fifteen years.  “We didn’t hurt that gate one bit,” he said.

The Townsends are white.  The residents of Bell Town buried in the cemetery are black. Anthony Townsend bought 26 acres in the historically black community in 2001. And there has been nothing but trouble since then.

According to Brown, the Townsends have turned many people away over the years, claiming they owned the land. They do own 26 acres on either side of the road but they don’t own the road.

State law prohibits blocking a right of way as well as access to a cemetery. The Joyces own 102 acres beyond the cemetery and they can’t reach it because the Townsends have erected gates and put in a concrete barrier blocking the way

“I grew up here in Bell Town,” said Samuel Walker.

Sheriff Deputy shows Anthony Townsend the parcel map and he says, “That’s just a technicality.”

“My Daddy, my sister, my grandmamma, my great grandmamma are buried there,” he said.

As children, Samuel and his brother, Robert, would sometimes walk the dirt road at night to pilfer watermelons from a field planted by one of their neighbors.

“There’s always been a road back there. It went all the way to the river,” Samuel said.

Bay Town is an unincorporated community on Highway 70 that was once entirely African-American. The people who live there claim to be descendants of slaves once owned by Montgomery Bell. Bell had several black mistresses who were given land close to the Narrows of the Harpeth. These days it’s a popular kayaking destination.

After the charges were dropped in the Ashland City courthouse the morning of August 9, Brown asked Assistant District Attorney Bob Wilson for a police escort so he could see the cemetery with Ronnie Daniel and Robert Walker, two Bell Town residents.

When they got to the gate across the road leading to the cemetery, Anthony Townsend was waiting for them. He stood behind the gate and would not let them pass. After about 20 minutes of getting nowhere, Sheriff Deputy Todd Bell called for back up.

“There isn’t anything you can tell me about this road I don’t already know,” Townsend told them.

Five squad cars eventually came and after another prolonged discussion Townsend unlocked the gate because he didn’t want to be arrested.

When they got to the cemetery they found gravestones overturned and piles of horse manure laying about.

Attorney Brown drove back to Ashland City to see Wilson who did not want to open a hate crime investigation.

Brown returned to the cemetery where he met Debra Joyce, her brother Kenneth Lawrence and his wife, and their elderly Aunt Bernice from California, who is in a wheel chair.

“With no police escort, that’s when they really went after us,” Brown told the Tribune.

Brown said he parked his car in a cul-de-sac and walked while the Joyces’ two cars drove all the way to the graveyard. The Townsend brothers showed up and started harassing them. Joe Townsend told Brown his car was getting towed.

Brown was walking back to check on his car when he heard footsteps rapidly approaching behind him.

“I turned around and there was a 260-pound 6 foot-tall man bull-rushing me,” said Brown. “He was coming at me like I was a tackle dummy. I screamed like a girl,” Brown said.

Brown called 911 and while he was on the phone the younger Townsend bull-rushed him two more times. ”He came to a stop with his fist in my face,” said Brown.

The Joyces heard the commotion and got in their cars to leave. But Anthony and his son blocked the road refusing to let the cars pass. They walked very slowly down the narrow road until the odd parade reached the pavement where Brown had parked.

Todd Bell, the same deputy who helped them earlier that day, arrived on the scene. He spent an hour with the Townsends but made no arrests and issued no citations.

Two weeks passed, and once again Brown arranged for a police escort so the Joyce clan and others could visit the graves of their relatives at Bell Town cemetery.

On Friday, August 25, the Joyces, Allen Brown, Robert Walker and two deputies arrived at 1 pm and found the gate closed.  One of the deputies opened the gate and five cars drove to the cemetery. Brown and a reporter left their cars on the pavement and walked the couple hundred yards to the cemetery.

They propped up a toppled gravestone and brushed off some of the veterans’ graves.

“They had a nice 45 minutes to visit their family members’ graves,” Brown said.

Then the Townsends showed up in two vehicles blocking all the cars, including the two Sheriff’ Deputies.

“They get out and start filming us and ranting and raving,” said Brown.

Heated words were exchanged and at one point Joe Townsend threatened to knock Lawrence Joyce’s teeth out. The officers made the Townsends move their cars so the visitors could leave.

“We get to the pavement and Deputy Peele told us not to get in our cars,” said Brown. A witness had seen Anthony Townsend stick nails into the groves in the front tires of both parked cars. They were pitched at an angle so they would puncture the tires if they drove forward.

At one point Townsend was cuffed and put in a squad car. But deputies released him. So once again, no arrests were made and no citations were issued.

Brown met with Cheatham County District Attorney Ray Crouch and Townsend’s attorney, Rhonda Crabtree, Wednesday morning.

Brown hopes the grand jury will treat recent events as a hate crime. If they do not go that far, Brown says he and his clients still have a private cause of action for malicious harassment.

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