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A Dallas family restored an ancestral cemetery. The story's on display on AT&T's big screens

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Galilee Abdullah
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KERA News
The lobby of AT&T Headquarters has an immersive display of the piney woods of East Texas, where Rodney Hawkins' family cemetery is located.

Rodney Hawkins began researching his family roots three years ago. Now there's an exhibition at AT&T Headquarters that follows his family's journey finding and restoring an East Texas burial site.

The giant screens at AT&T headquarters immerse you among chirping birds in the piney woods of East Texas.

Rodney Hawkins, a producer and journalist in Dallas, led a team that created the exhibit, called "The Mount Experience". He was inspired to start researching his family history when heard stories from his grandmother about growing up on her family's sharecropping farm. The journey led him to the cemetery.

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Kwesi Yanful
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Tiny Hawk Productions
A family photograph that's on display in the exhibit, taken during the process of restoring Old Mount Gilliam Cemetery.

"It had almost been 30 to 40 years since Old Mount Gillion Cemetery, where my ancestors rest, had a cemetery that was fully functional and that you could actually recognize," he said. "And the reason why we needed to restore it is it sits in the middle of the piney woods, which is in deep East Texas."

Hawkins says this is just one of many efforts to restore historical Black burial sites across the country.

He says the project also helped them discover family members.

"We were able to find out relatives that we didn't know were relatives, we thought were neighbors, friends," he said. "But through this cemetery we're able to connect so many dots that even looking in Ancestry and looking into our history and records, we wouldn't have been able to if we didn't have the actual physical piece."

Hawkins hopes this exhibition will inspire others to explore their family's past, and record their elders.

The exhibit features photographs from the restoration project by Dallas photographer Kwesi Yanful. There's an immersive entrance to the cemetery, and works from Dallas artists T’Ria Hurd and Trevor Donaldson.

"The Mount Experience" is up at AT&T Headquarters in the AT&T Discovery District through February 21st.

Galilee Abdullah is an arts reporter.