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A Family’s East Texas Ancestry Was Brought to Life in the AT&T Discovery District

Rodney Hawkins, a former producer with CBS News, helped piece together his family’s history and restore a 200-year-old cemetery. The exhibit was presented at AT&T’s downtown headquarters.
By Garrett Tarango |
In “The Mount Experience,” producer Rodney Hawkins documented the restoration of the 200-year-old Old Mount Gillion cemetery in East Texas, which was near the edge of his family’s property. The AT&T Discovery District presented an exhibit showing photos of the project and of Hawkins’ family story. Kwesi Yanful

For the last five weeks, the lobby of AT&T headquarters has transported visitors to the Piney Woods of Nacogdoches through an exhibit called the Mount Experience. Visitors were introduced to the Old Mount Gillion Cemetery, an approximately 200-year-old site that nature’s overgrowth concealed long ago, obscuring the history of those who were buried there.

Rodney Hawkins, a former CBS News producer and founder of Tiny Hawk Productions, began asking his relatives questions about their ancestry after a family trip during the summer of 2020.

“We are a very fortunate family, we still own over 150 acres in East Texas, and that is very rare in the Black community,” Hawkins says. “I was curious as to how we were able to hold on to that amount of land.”

His relatives didn’t have answers, but they directed him to Old Mount Gillion, which sits deep in the backwoods bordering the family property.

Producer Rodney Hawkins documented the restoration of the Old Mount Gillion Cemetery in East Texas. Here, his great aunt, Ira Nell Maxie, walks the grounds during the cleanup. Kwesi Yanful

Hawkins’ curiosity was also driven by a conversation with SMU professor Dr. Eric Bing. While filming an interview for CBS on the pandemic, the two discussed African American history in East Texas. After Hawkins mentioned his ties to the region, Bing challenged him to explore deeper.

The highlight from the conversation for Hawkins, however, was Bing encouraging him to interview his 106-year-old grandmother, Elise Powell Hurd.

“I’m so glad Dr. Bing told me to do that because three months later, she passed away,” Hawkins says. “That is really what inspired me to go down this huge rabbit hole to where I found the cemetery.”

Hawkins decided to document the resurrection of Old Mount Gillion in a three-part CBS series. He invited community members and relatives from across the country to help in the restoration project.

The project — produced in conjunction with Stephen F. Austin State University — revealed that the Hawkins bloodline was enslaved in 1841, according to a bill of sale found in county records. Richard Curl, who Hawkins believes to be one of his oldest ancestors buried at the cemetery, bought land there after his freedom. Hawkins learned that Curl is the reason why his family owns the property in Nacogdoches today.

He also learned that his family has fought in every major U.S. war.

“We’re able to map that through the lineage that we see in the county records as well as how they’re memorialized in the cemetery,” Hawkins says. “So that was just a proud moment, just to know that we are a part of the American fabric and what it means to be American.”

Producer Rodney Hawkins interviewed members of his family and the Nacogdoches community to put together a history of his anecstry going back to the 1800s. Kwesi Yanful

Alongside filming for the CBS series, Hawkins hired photographer Kwesi Yanful to photograph the restoration effort.

“He’s done a lot of work capturing Black people in their true essence,” Hawkins says. “And I’ve seen him do a series of beautiful work in the woods. I was like, “Well, this is exactly what we’re doing.”

Hawkins originally intended for the photos to remain in a personal archive, but a year later the Dallas gallerist Daisha Board convinced him to show them to the world.

Dozens of Yanful’s photos lined the walls of the AT&T Showcase room. Some depict relatives and community members at work moving branches. Others show individual portraits of these same people, spotlighting their contributions toward the project.

The environment surrounding the photos was also considered during the design phase. Hawkins decided that the walls, the frames, and the insides of the frames all to be white so that the pictures would pop. The white also reminded him of a photo album, which is what he wanted visitors to feel like they were walking through.

The Mount Experience features two major installations. In the left corner of the room stood a replica of Ova Curl’s — or Big Mama’s — living room, created by Neiman Marcus designer T’ria Hurd, great-granddaughter of Curl and cousin of Hawkins. It includes a photo of Ova with her husband, Mitch Curl; a porcelain heel adorned with painted flowers; and a glass coffee table, on which laid a book that visitors could scan with their phone to see an augmented-reality version of Hawkins’ family tree. The highlight of the replica is Ova Curl’s couch, which Hawkins and I sat on for the interview, expanding the immersive experience of it all.

Directly right of the replica stands a real moss tunnel, topped by a rustic sign that reads: “THE MOUNT.” The look and smell of the moss, alongside the sound of birds chirping through the Showcase room’s speakers, made the tunnel feel like it had the power to drop travelers off at the steps of the Old Mount Gillion Cemetery.

For Hawkins, his dive into his family’s history is only beginning, and he hopes that the exhibit pushes visitors to discover their own ancestry. He encourages people to ask their elders more questions while they still can, and he believes those who connect with their past can take what they learn and use it today.

“Being grounded and rooted in where you’re from has helped me in so many different ways,” Hawkins says. “I just hope it continues to inspire others to find that same sort of understanding.”

The Mount Experience ended February 21 at the Showcase, but Hawkins doesn’t plan for the project to end there. A website documenting the exhibit that allows visitors to tour his journey will go live in the coming weeks.

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