Forgotten but not gone
Originally published in The Burr Magazine
Spring 2013 edition
This spring, Kent State students once again helped a community uncover its past, understand its present and — as history tends to repeat itself — find an achingly familiar pattern in its future.
Buried beneath a bruised sky of quickly moving storm clouds, some 30,000 secrets are here, filling a 15-acre plot of land in an overlap of historic neighborhoods in southern Memphis, Tenn. They’re buried beneath rugged terrain, a geography riddled with unexpected sinkholes and rectangular-shaped depressions. They’re beneath a variety of tall grasses and colorful flowers and vines that creak in the wind. They’re buried beneath dense thickets of deciduous trees: tall black cherries, blooming southern magnolias, winged elms and red maples. For years, they’ve shrouded the memories of those who pass it daily, those who still feel the tension that these secrets manifest, tension that has been imbedded in this part of the country since the nation’s founding.
But every year, more and more secrets come to light, whether it be through mighty swings of a battle axe, unearthed tombstones from thick mud or endless hours of combing carefully archived records. And, once uncovered, they mean something different to everyone — if they mean anything at all.
Ten years ago, Kent State professor and self-described “cemetery nut” Christina McVay drove right past Zion Christian Cemetery thinking it was a forest. She was searching for the grave of Thomas Moss, one of three black businessmen lynched in 1892 as their grocery store grew competitive with a white-owned store across the street. One of McVay’s students was working on her senior thesis about the aftermath of the killings and black journalist Ida B. Wells’ famous international anti-lynching campaign.
But that day, they passed it, again and again, until it dawned on her the cemetery was right there, that Moss’s grave was among the “wild jungle,” as some local residents remember it.
“We thought it’d be a kept up cemetery,” McVay says. “But you could see no headstones. Nobody was doing anything ... I just couldn’t get it off my mind.”
For spring and fall semesters since then, she has led a caravan from Kent State to join the Zion Community Project, Inc. in making slow but steady progress toward its goal of clearing and maintaining the oldest all-black cemetery in Memphis. Within a decade, the upstart nonprofit has joined forces with more than a dozen community organizations — Kent State one of few outside Tennessee — to develop a longterm restoration strategy.
On the first Saturday of their spring academic break, seventeen students arrive at St. John’s Episcopal Church in unseasonably cold rain. They sleep on the floor of the expansive church’s youth activity room and eat cheaply in its kitchen. They hurl dodge balls in its gymnasium and play hide-and-seek in its variety of storage rooms during downtime that accumulates with the heavy downpours that rain out the first morning of scheduled work.
When it’s finally clear enough on the second morning, McVay leads them with her trademark RV on a few miles’ drive to the cemetery’s entrance on South Parkway Avenue. The an iron arch and a locked gate that someone hops out to open.
McVay sets up camp on the main dirt road and asks the students to be cautious — “Pace yourself. Don’t hurt yourself.” — warnings that seem obvious and ominous as the students pick up sharpened axes, hedge clippers and 10-inch pruning saws from plastic bins to begin violently hack away the thick underbrush.
(Later that first day, Maryssa Garrett will encounter what everyone decided afterwards must have been a tiny nail that went through her shoe and bloodied up her foot. After a trip to the Methodist hospital downtown, she observed the rest of the week’s work from crutches.)
The students perform what boils down to monotonous physical labor, not surprising when you consider inmates from surrounding prisons have been responsible for much of the clearing that now approaches five acres. With each methodic connection of Nate Choma’s ferocious swing, a tree trunk chips thinner until, with one final heave, he can uproot from the ground with his bare hands, shoulder it into the air and carry it to a growing pile of dead wood. A speck of bright yellow T-shirt and orange bandana, tall and lanky and serious, Choma does this all day.
Others piece together fractured tombstones. Thylitha Johnson is deep in the most densely wooded section, at the back boundary of the cemetery marked by the Frisco Railroad Line with its periodic, roaring trains. She’s discovered the front face of a tombstone, trapped perfectly flat in the mud. It’s pretty deep, though.
Others are elsewhere, dragging shoes, blown-out tires and rims, toilet bowl porcelein, shattered televisions, rusted baby strollers, glass whiskey pints and other debris to blue tarps. Trees, trash and tombstones — the three items you’ll find in Zion Cemetery today.
By the time the deed was transferred to General Board of Personnel Services at Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1990, the land had been neglected for decades. The church’s 25-page “master plan” to restore the cemetery provides as much factual information as possible, but much of it is theory. It understands the degradation through percentages of tree cover — 10 percent in 1937, 65 percent in 1986 — and oddly specific descriptions of the growth: “tall grass, honeysuckle and other vines, wild rose and briar, privet and tree seedlings.” It promises an initial $102,239 from the church community and a state grant into removing underbrush from the landscape, installing a storm drain and irrigation pipeline and graveling the main road.
It also tries to piece together a history of muddled transitions of private ownership, through scanned letters and documents from city health department officials, concerned citizens and self-described caretakers.
Founded in 1876 by the United Sons of Zion, a fraternal organization of freed slaves, the cemetery inters many prominent figures in African African history, including famous black lawyers, doctors, businessmen and, of course, lynching victims Thomas Moss, William Stewart and Calvin McDowell. In no discernible order, the plots filled through the years in rushes and lulls, spiking during yellow fever epidemic in which the white community fled Memphis while the blacks stayed behind.
Many of them were also Freemasons, their tombstones engraved with variations of the group’s square-and-compass symbol. Back in the day, the African American community was divided between the church clergy and the more secular secret societies. Some primary sources at the library describe fraternal funerals at Zion Cemetery as “circus-like” with heavy drinking and “showy brass bands and gaily uniformed processions.” But members of the organization began to die out, and after the last rush of dug graves in the 1930s, it slowly fell into despair.
Part of the answer of how to fend off the forest is figuring out why those around it let it grow. It’s seemingly isn’t enough, in Memphis, to reason that the all-black cemetery simply “fell into disrepair” from pure neglect. It’s logical to assume, in a place where Confederate flags fly proud — in some places pointedly larger and taller than its American partner — that the issue of race is linked to everyday life in a majority-black city as well as everyday death in an all-black cemetery.
“I always thought it was a forest,” says Zion board member Peatchola Jones-Cole, chief of employee education at the VA hospital in Memphis. “You walk past history every day, and you don’t even know it.”
She’s part of a committee of archaeologists, professors, historians and research wonks are beginning the daunting task of collecting it all together. Stacked on a heavy wooden table on the fourth floor of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library — a sprawling, contemporary storehouse of historical records — is everything the library could dig up. Jim Johnson, the library’s senior manager of history and social sciences, goes through each item and explains its significance.
Binders of census records from the 1800s, annual yearbooks of Negro businesses, city maps showing land ownership and an atlas-sized, leather-bound book — about 21,000 handwritten names into a burial registry from 1895 to 1974. The first 18 years were lost or destroyed.
It’s here the committee is beginning research for a comprehensive book on the cemetery, tracing the genealogy of the its buried members and finding living relatives along the way, effectively check-marking the nonprofit’s #2 stated goal: “To engender a greater public understanding of the significance of local history.”
“There are thousands of these forgotten cemeteries across the country,” McVay says. “Literally, thousands.”
The state of the cemetery is described in few documents during the half-century prior to the master plan, but still the board members leaf through death indexes wheeled in on book carts. They squint and slide their fingers along a laminated map showing the city first annexed Glenview in 1899. This means that for 23 years, they conclude in wonderment, the cemetery was in the country.
A volume called “Historical Documents About Zion Cemetery,” is full of scanned letters like those among the county’s economic developers that discuss the “sketchy” rules about who is actually legally responsible for addressing health concerns at the cemetery.
By the seventies, all record of ownership had fallen into the hands of George Christian, the last living descendent of the original founders. His wife, Eva, is quoted in a 1981 newspaper clipping: “Maybe if I wasn’t 78, I’d get out and make speeches and try to get the churches and clubs involved. But we don’t have the strength. We’re doing all we know how.” The article describes the disarray: “The cemetery’s winding, once scenic drive resembles a logging road. Tombstones have been defaced, stolen and used as chopping blocks and makeshift picnic tables. Garbage is everywhere.”
“It was a dumping ground,” Johnson tells them, so much an untamed territory that Isaiah Rowser, a pastor working for a religious nonprofit from Nashville, temporarily took over the land. Quoted in news articles from 1979, Rowser claims he was trying to fix it when he bulldozed the front southwest corner of the cemetery, misplacing headstones and causing general destruction that only a court order from Christian could stop.
And though his motives remain unclear, the church’s master plan document officially names that section of indented, empty land the “Disturbed Meadow.” With the likely absence of any written record, those buried in the Disturbed Meadow will never be known.
“Your generation’s civil rights movement will be socioeconomic prejudice,” Jim Carroll tells the students first thing one morning.
Carroll is the executive director of Chose 901, a nonprofit that encourages young people to move to and invest in Memphis, hooking them up with various nonprofits in the “buckle of the Bible Belt.” He’s dropped by to thank the students, still groggy from another night on the floor, for their efforts.
“That’s why you’re here and not on a beach in Florida,” he says. “You want your spring break to actually matter.”
Carroll had prefaced his Memphis sales pitch by listing the statistical positives and benefits of the city alongside some of its least pleasant aspects, ranging from benevolent philanthropies to dependence on welfare checks to a broken education system to an obesity epidemic. He touches on race for a moment and declares this generation, as he sees it, undivided by color.
Rather, as young people today grow up, it’ll be the unifying quality of living in true poverty — a force so powerful it could drive someone to loot a cemetery and enter decapitated marble limbs and heads of angels into the circles of pawn shops — that will divide us more and more everyday.
Some in the room visibly disagree with Carroll’s point, shaking their heads at him, but he insists — “No, really.”
Perhaps one may need to go back even further to understand the dynamics of Memphis today.
In June 1861, Tennessee became the last state to succeed from the Union. Nathan Bedford Forrest emerged as a popular cavalry leader during the war, after gaining most of his wealth by trading slaves through Memphis’ market of forced labor that kept the cotton economy afloat in the antebellum South.
An entry from the 1855-56 Memphis City Directory brags that W.B. Forrest & Maples, partners in the slave dealing business, has the “best selected assortment of Firled Hands, House Servants & Mechanics at Negro Mart ... They are daily receiving from Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri, fresh supplies of likely Young Negroes.” Local legend has it, Forrest would sit on his horse so he could see the slaves arrive on the Mississippi River and sell them off as soon as their feet hit land.
Forrest joined the Confederate States Army to fight like a millionaire who feels his fortunes are threatened. After a naval battle on the Mississippi turned Memphis into a Union stronghold, he tried to gain parts of the city back for the rebels, even raiding the streets of downtown in 1864, attempting to free Confederate prisoners and cutting telegraph lines. Raising hell, essentially.
After a lost war, Forrest, disgruntled and probably bored, Forrest naturally needed a hobby and outlet for his frustration. A club called the Ku Klux Klan, at its earliest stages of formation in southern Tennessee, attracted him. A group of rebel veterans trying to convince and threaten blacks back into their former state of repression, the KKK grew to more than a half million adherents by 1870. Forrest was such an outspoken leader that some consider him the group’s first Grand Wizard.
When Forrest died of diabetes, he was buried in the particularly well-kept Elmwood Cemetery, an ritzy establishment of gardens, vistas and magnificent monuments that predates Zion by 27 years as the oldest active cemetery in Memphis.
But one hundred and thirty-six years later, the Confederate fighter still scans the Mississippi from high on his horse, encased in bronze at the center of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, facing the Mississippi, waiting for the next profitable tugboat of black slaves to roll in.
From his office in CME Church’s plush headquarters on South Elvis Presley Boulevard, Warner Dickerson spends an hour talking about race in America through lenses of politics and economics, looping hypotheticals that put himself into the shoes of slaveowners to view slavery as a truly pragmatic benefit to the south.
As the 75-year-old program chair for CME Church and former president of the Memphis NAACP branch justifies the trade of his black slave ancestors using the analogy of a cattle farmer needing to grow his farm, he’s playing devil’s advocate. But he’s being serious. Why does race — something that, according to the theories of science, doesn’t really matter in the way we live our lives — matter? Why did it enslave people? Why does it divide and unify?
It was all about money, he posits, and, scarily enough, economics are even more of an integrated part of society than ever before. He compares once slaveowners to the relatively few, massive profit-pumped corporations operating off cheap labor today. Outsourcing, even. It’s all social Darwinism at the end of the day. Capitalism’s survival of the fittest.
It’s no one’s fault, he says, just like the lynchings were just a few bad eggs. Most people, both black and white, both then and now, are good people. We have to remember that God created us all with some form of neurosis, meaning humanity as a whole is flawed and imperfect. We’re greedy and selfish and evil. It’s just our nature to exploit.
After a while, he reins himself in, fearing he’s becoming too muddled. He uses simple anthropology to illustrate his point.
“I can go to a cold climate, and stay there for two centuries, and I wouldn’t have the pigmentation I have,” he says. “If you really think about it, if you go all the way back to God, God doesn’t really care about that stuff anyway.”
As a young man at the University of Memphis, he says, he was bitter. He hated all white folks. But as he studied and learned the history, he changed. And during his time with the NAACP — an organization spawned in the aftermath of Moss’s lynching — Dickerson says he was baffled it didn’t receive much support from young folks. As he talked with parents his age, he began to realize why this upcoming generation “doesn’t feel” the concept of racism.
“What (parents) say to me is, that stuff is painful — that’s why I didn’t want to talk about it with my children,” he says. “So if they don’t talk about it, then how do they know?”
African-Americans make up about 63 percent of the population in Memphis, while whites are just more than one in four. The white-black proportions flipped sometime around 1970, when whites fled the city. Yet Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan is still active, often marching and protesting perceived threats to its heritage.
Two days after McVay and the students pack up tools and leave town, about 60 KKK members rally at the Shelby County Courthouse against the city council’s proposed name changes to local parks: Confederate Park to Memphis Park, Jefferson Davis Park to Mississippi River Park and, the most provocative, Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park. Essentially, stripping some of America’s most prominent rebels from Memphis memory.
News reports estimated more than a thousand attended a counter rally.
Driving through the city aptly named for the mysterious capital of ancient Egypt, train tracks stalk and bisect the roads. Planes roar low overhead. Barges hum through the fourth-busiest port city in the country and under the iron truss bridges that connect Arkansas. The world’s Federal Express hub churns like a well-oiled machine. People and things come and go, but in Glenview and Midtown and North Memphis, vacant and neglected properties multiply. Communities divide.
Shops like “Krosstown Kleaners,” a seemingly abandoned dry cleaning business on Madison Avenue, remain unflinching symbols of klan culture on street corners.
“Sometimes I think we celebrate the wrong stuff,” says Rev. Roland Johnston as he strolls through Zion Cemetery for the first time in a long while. “We close our eyes to certain things in history, and we try to shove it down somebody else’s throat.”
Johnson is pastor of Trinity branch of CME Church located in North Memphis, one of the roughest parts of the city. He’s also vice president of the nonprofit board. He’s an easygoing guy who just got done with a round of golf and speaks in a mellow, comforting tone. Walking the main road from the front meadows all the way to the back forests, he notices minor details that have been shifted, uprooted and dragged away from his memory, much like how racism has measuredly been beaten down over the course of his lifetime.
When Johnson moved to a new neighborhood five years ago, he says, the two white guys next door didn’t move. Years ago, that would’ve happened. What they did was say was, “welcome to the neighborhood.” The racial divide, he says, exists today in more subtle undertones. Segregation has transcended into broader subsection of society. He talks about large national political movements like voter ID laws as “voter suppression,” which hurts “not just African Americans but also elderly white people. Poor people in general.”
It seems John Carroll’s premonition might already be coming true in Memphis. Johnson says poverty, as a segregation, feeds today into the rich identity of Glenview much like during periods of racial segregation in neighborhoods in the South, when “we knew who we were.”
“One of the beauties of segregated neighborhoods is you went to school with the doctor’s kids,” he says. “Nobody knew they were poor because everybody had the same stuff. You didn’t wear $150 sneakers.”
“One of the beauties of the south is you know where you stand. You know where you are.”
It’s an interesting concept, divisions uniting people. Making them feel comfortable. Of course, Johnson isn’t defending or endorsing segregation. But he is saying that when the nonprofit launches its capital campaign to finally make the maintenance of Zion Cemetery a permanently funded idea, it will foster the remembrance of what Dickerson claims is lost. It will create new ties among a disconnected generation.
“A lot of it has to do with people not sitting down and talking to each other,” Johnson says. “Not trying to learn each other, not understanding that diversity is actually a good thing. Glenview has a rich identity. Folks who lived in Glenview have a strong sense of community, faith. They love this place.”
Cynthia Gray, working a few blocks away at the Shell gas station on the corner of South Parkway and Bellevue, says she stopped walking through the cemetery years ago. It was too dangerous. Looters, prostitutes, drug deals. In broad daylight. If it were cleared, she says, “sure we would walk through it again ‘cuz we wouldn’t be so scared. A lot of people used to walk through there to get their kids from school. You got all kinds of people there. Up to no good.”
But for many who pass Zion, it might as well still be a mystery. Generations have moved out, new ones have moved in. Next to the cemetery, in Glenview, is an emptied out tenement housing complex, a series of at least a dozen windowless buildings fenced in with barbed wire. In some cases, the doors hang open, creaking in the wind. But most are padlocked, newspapered and boarded up. The houses in the immediate vicinity of the cemetery are much of the same.
Dion Marshall shoots hoops in Bellevue Park across from the Shell station. The 13-year-old’s family moved from North Memphis to the South Parkway community last year because of “hard times, I guess.” He doesn’t know much about Zion, he says before the dusk packing up his bag and leaving. He’s one of many who have that same reaction.
“It’s a brainwashing process, both on the part of the oppressor and oppressed,” Dickerson says. “As a black citizen of Memphis, here is a cemetery that has interred the history of the black community. We need to use it as a teaching tool.”
Dickerson sees the clearing of Zion Cemetery as just another tactic to combat racism, money and God-granted human imperfection, all “so simplistic you might miss it.”
“I do what I can, when I can, how I can. You gonna correct it? Are you going to revolutionize it? I don’t think so.”
After all, how do you eat an elephant, he asks?
One bite at a time.
Just a mile from Zion Cemetery, two police cars speed and whoop sirens through the intersection of Mississippi and Walker streets, where the store ran by Thomas Moss still stands on the corner. Its windows are barred with gates and the “People’s Grocery” sign faded. A silver historical marker tries to explain the lynching to anyone who doesn’t know. According to the sign, Moss’ dying words were: “Tell my people to go west — there is no justice for them here.”
A few feet away, a homemade wooden cross marks the shooting death of a drug dealer known as Fish and a sign that begs for an end to gun violence has blown off into the grass: “Education is the key to stop the killing.” A revolving door of businesses has occupied the other three corners as long as local residents can remember.
Amelia Bell hangs her Dereon purse on the rusted handles of the trashed baby stroller on the last day of work for the students. Seasonal warmth and sunshine bathes the cemetery in golden light. On the other side of the chain-linked fence from the Disturbed Meadow, Chris Jamerson, 35, and his friend, Artis Mitchell, 57, work on the engine of a white Ford. From their home on the dead end of Gleason Street, they’ve witnessed the cemetery’s clearing from their backyard.
“That little bit y’all’s doing helps,” Jamerson says. “I mean, I don’t know how much it means to y’all, you know, if it’s just a grade. But every little input helps. That y’all are even over there, picking up a shovel or a rake, that’s a lot of work.”
When the students leave, Jamerson says, the inmates that have cleared the front part of the cemetery will come back. He’s talked to them before. He knows a lot of them.
“I ask them how they feel about it. It’s work to them. They don’t think of it as, like, this historic graveyard. It’s a job to them. And when it’s a job, you don’t care about it.”
He hops back up inside the engine of the truck but keeps talking.
“Everybody wants to know about the past, that’s the thing. Everybody should know about the past. By staying here, you can see the difference by looking at your door every day. You might have three people under that tree. How would we know? Those gravestones are broken up.”
At the end of Gleason, years of cemetery intruders have trampled the fence to a 45-degree angle. It makes Jamerson, too, worry about this generation’s disconnect. He knows about the KKK rally in the coming days, and he knows about the white supremacists’ argument for why bronze statue of Forrest on his horse is culturally important — but he also knows that in civic society today, the KKK is no more than a gang, like those that run his streets and fire gunshots during the night.
“It don’t matter what the fuck organization it is, if you go and get a petition,” he says, “They can’t do shit about it. So it don’t make no difference.”
Jamerson hops back down from the truck engine. Mitchell goes off to talk to another neighbor, English teacher and part-time beekeeper Ilia Rashad Muhammad, who’s arrived home from school and is skeptically checking on his hives from a distance. Look, Jamerson says, if kids today were thinking worldly, if they understood the threats America faces abroad — from North Korean missile launches to Syrian civil wars — perhaps they’d have a little context to how meaningless their struggles are at home.
“By us being young, we gotta know, hey, we gotta try and do something or our future’s gonna be fucked up,” he says. “The young generation isn’t thinking about this stuff — so they lost, you know what I’m saying? All they thinking about is the drugs, and the gangs, and the women and shit like that — so they lost.”
“We gotta do something fast guys, because while we at each other’s neck ... it’s gonna come a time when it’s too late.”
It’s close to becoming too late for Thylitha Johnson. She’s been digging for days. Deep in the woods, trains occasionally roaring by, Johnson finally pries her finding out of the tough ground with a shovel. “Oh my — ” She’s looking at three linked chains engraved on the tombstone’s top rounded edge.
A small group forms around her, and McVay identifies its symbolism immediately: “That means they were slaves.”
There’s a moment of strange silence in which everyone tries to figure out what to do with it, a moment that routinely follows many discoveries here. Mary Kitson, sophomore psychology major, says, “Should we turn it around?” Regardless, it is up and intact. There’s no name on the back, either, just the address of a Masonic lodge that doesn’t exist.
It was a Kent State student who found Thomas Moss’s grave nine years ago in the last hour of the last day of the trip. He was crawling, McVay says, because the growth was so thick. The other two lynching victims are still somewhere among the 30,000 secrets, perhaps forever gone underneath the bulldozed Disturbed Meadow or maybe among those waiting to be found in Undisturbed Meadows.
“There are still a lot of mysteries,” McVay admits, cautiously walking to her favorite spot in Zion: the grave of 19-year-old Arthur Trice, whose tombstone unflinchingly states: “Killed on Nov. 8 1900.” An arched script reads: “Gone but Not Forgotten.”
“But, you know, we know a ton more than we knew when I first came here,” McVay says.
Successful black businessman George Lee wrote often about the height of Memphis blues culture in the 1930s. The Depression-era writings predate the civil rights movement and emerge during a time that lawmakers embraced Jim Crow. In his book “Beale Street: Where the Blues Began,” Lee describes the transformation of the city’s most famous avenue from an upper-middle-class white neighborhood to a commercial street for Negroes. Stretching east into downtown from the banks of the Mississippi, Beale Street once welcomed blues musicians like B.B. King and W.C. Handy from all across the delta.
At the time, Lee writes: “There are a few white men who cling to the mental reservations that made them masters, and a few Negroes with cowed heads who cling to the mental reservations that made them slaves.”
Undoubtedly true. Dickerson will tell you that most white and black people then and now are good, flawed people. It’s the few that preach hate. But if you skip to the end of Lee’s 296-page chronicle, you’ll find a measure of progress that reaches to 2013.
Because during the nights when the students retired to the floor of the church, you could find on Beale Street live indoor and outdoor music heating up. Open-air tent vendors display jewelry, electrically vibrant clothing and other miscellaneous treasures in the parks. Black, white, young, old, rich and poor fill the few cordoned-off blocks, milling from blues bars to all-night cafes to barbecue restaurants to voodoo shops.
It’s here — with each snap of the snare drum, each restaurant-wide singalong and each ravenous cheer from the sports bar fans — that the scientific evidence disproving the existence of race seems the most validated. That part of Memphis’s appeal, whether it unites you or divides you, lies in the fact that a 15-acre plot of land can conceal so much and yet reveals what turns out to mean so little.
“Up from the docks of the Mississippi River,” Lee writes, “up from the saloons, the bawdy houses on Beale, up from the honky-tonks of the sawmill towns, up from the white cotton fields of Dixie, accompanied by banjo strumming and hand-clapping, rose the sorrow songs of the Negro toiler.”
Roland Johnson was right. In the South, you know where you stand. You know where you are.
“The clouds are at last rolling back and Beale Street sleeps serenely as it has slept for many years under southern skies near ‘Old Man River.’ The glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, the “blues” that is Beale.”