Words by Daniel Moore
Photos by Jacob Byk

This spring, 17 Kent State students once again helped a community uncover its past – in an attempt to understand its present.

In a 15-acre plot of land in southern Memphis, Tenn., countless secrets are buried.

They’re buried beneath rugged terrain, riddled with unexpected sinkholes and rectangular-shaped depressions. They’re beneath 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, these secrets have remained just that – secrets – unknowingly perpetuating the tension that has been imbedded in this part of the country for more than 200 years.

But every year, more and more of these secrets come to light – whether it be through the swings of an ax, the unearthing of tombstones or endless hours of combing carefully archived records. And, once uncovered, the secrets mean something different to everyone – if they mean anything at all.

Many of the tombstones weigh nearly 100 pounds and require multiple hands to lift them after years of neglect. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

In 2003, Christina McVay, a Kent State professor and self-described “cemetery nut,” drove right past Zion Christian Cemetery, located in Memphis’ Glenview neighborhood, thinking it was a forest. She was searching for the grave of Thomas Moss, one of three black businessmen who was lynched in 1892, after his grocery store grew competitive with a white-owned store across the street.

McVay drove by, again and again, until it dawned on her that the cemetery was right there – that Moss’ grave was among the “wild jungle,” as some residents remember it.

“We thought it’d be a kept up cemetery,” McVay says. “But you could see no headstones. Nobody was doing anything.”

For spring and fall semesters since then, McVay has led caravans of volunteers 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 long-term restoration strategy.

On the first Saturday of their 2013 spring break, 17 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 the downtime that accumulates after the heavy downpour delays their first morning of scheduled work.

Nathaniel Choma, junior communication studies major, clears a tree he cut down in the jungle in the back of the cemetery. Ten years ago, this dense forestation swallowed the entire 15-acre property, but volunteer groups have since uncovered the neglected graves. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

When it’s finally clear enough on the second morning, the students pile into McVay’s RV for a few miles’ drive to the cemetery’s entrance on South Parkway Avenue. The approach an iron arch and a locked gate that someone hops out to open.

McVay sets up camp on the main dirt road and offers cautious warnings – “pace yourself,” and “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 and begin violently hacking away at the thick underbrush.

(Later that first day, Maryssa Garrett encounters what everyone decided must have been a tiny nail that went through her shoe and bloodied her foot. After a trip to the Methodist hospital downtown, she would observe the rest of the week’s work from crutches.)

The students perform what boils down to monotonous physical labor. With each methodic connection of Nate Choma’s ax, a tree trunk chips thinner until, with one final heave, he uproots the base from the ground with his bare hands. He shoulders it into the air and carries it to a growing pile of dead wood. Wearing a 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, near the back of the cemetery – its boundary marked by the Frisco Railroad Line with its periodic, roaring trains. She discovers the front face of a tombstone, trapped perfectly flat in the deep mud.

Danielle Martin, senior French translation major, takes a cigarette break on top of Christina McVay’s RV overlooking the cemetery. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

Others are elsewhere, dragging shoes, blown-out tires and rims, toilet bowl porcelain, shattered televisions, rusted baby strollers, glass whiskey pints and other debris to blue tarps. Trees, trash and tombstones – the cemetery’s three most-common findings.

“Oh my,” Johnson says, as she finally pries her finding out of the tough ground with a shovel. 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 – only 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 final hour of the last day of the trip. He was crawling, McVay says, because the growth was so thick. The burial sites of the other two lynching victims are still lost somewhere among the cemetery’s 15 acres.

“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. 

See more photos of students at Zion Cemetery in Unearthed: A Portrait Series

By the time its deed was transferred to General Board of Personnel Services at Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church in 1990, the cemetery 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 notes 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 – all devoted to 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-American history, including 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 the yellow fever epidemic, during which much of the white community fled Memphis, while the much of the black community stayed behind.

Three members of the Zion Community Project look at a city map of Memphis dating back to 1892, the year Thomas Moss was lynched. Founded in 1876 by the United Sons of Zion, a fraternal organization of former slaves, Zion Cemetery inters many prominent figures in African-American history, including famous lawyers, doctors and businessmen — as well as lynching victims William Stewart, Calvin McDowell and Moss. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

Many of those interred were also Freemasons, their tombstones engraved with variations of the group’s square-and-compass symbol. At one time, the area’s African-American community was divided between the church clergy and the secular secret societies. Some at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central 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. Following a series of burials in the 1930s, the cemetery slowly fell into despair – and eventually became the forest McVay found in 2003.

But in order to understand how to clear the forest, one must understand why those around it let it grow.

“I always thought it was a forest,” says Zion board member Peatchola Jones-Cole, who also serves as chief of employee education at the veterans affairs hospital in Memphis. “You walk past history every day, and you don’t even know it.”

Jones-Cole is part of a committee of archaeologists, professors, historians and researchers attempting to piece 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 find on the cemetery. 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 black businesses, city maps showing land ownership and an atlas-sized, leather-bound burial registry, containing approximately 21,000 handwritten names of those who were interred from 1895 to 1974. The first 18 years were lost or destroyed.

It’s here the committee is beginning its research for a comprehensive book on the cemetery, tracing the genealogy of those interred and finding living relatives along the way, effectively check-marking the nonprofit’s secondary goal: “[t]o engender a greater public understanding of the significance of local history.”

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 1970s, 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.”

In the late 1970s, the cemetery was unofficially claimed by Isaiah Rowser, a pastor working for a religious nonprofit from Nashville. Quoted in newspaper articles from 1979, Rowser says he sought to fix the cemetery when he bulldozed its southwestern corner, misplacing headstones and causing general destruction that only a court order from Christian brought to a halt. Today, the church’s master plan names this section the “Disturbed Meadow.” With the absence of any written record, the names of those buried in the Disturbed Meadow will never be known.

———-

“Your generation’s civil rights movement will be socio-economic prejudice,” Jim Carroll tells McVay’s students first thing one morning.

Carroll is the executive director of Chose 901, a nonprofit that encourages young people to invest in Memphis, hooking them up with various nonprofits in the “buckle of the Bible Belt.” He has dropped by to thank the students, who are still groggy from another night on the church floor.

“That’s why you’re here and not on a beach in Florida,” he says. “You want your spring break to actually matter.”

The store run by lynching victim Thomas Moss still stands on the corner of Mississippi and Walker streets. The site where Moss was dragged to his death on March 9, 1892, is now marked by a cross for a recent shooting victim. A sign that begs for an end to gun violence has blown into the grass: “Education is the key to stop the killing.” Moss is buried a mile down the road in Zion Cemetery. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

Carroll had prefaced his Memphis sales pitch by listing the statistical positives and benefits of the city alongside some of its least pleasant aspects, including economic struggle. He touches on race for a moment and declares that the students’ generation, as he sees it, is undivided by color.

Some in the room visibly disagree with Carroll’s point, shaking their heads at him, but he insists — “No, really.”

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 already 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 backward 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.

On the other side of the Disturbed Meadows’ chain-linked fence – the dead end of Gleason Street, Chris Jamerson, 35, and his friend, Artis Mitchell, 57, work on the engine of a white Ford. Throughout the years, they have witnessed the cemetery’s clearing from their backyard.

“That little bit [they’re] doing helps,” Jamerson says. “I mean, I don’t know how much it means to [them], you know, if it’s just a grade. But every little input helps. That [they] are even over there, picking up a shovel or a rake, that’s a lot of work.”

Chris Jamerson, 35, and Artis Mitchell, 57, are neighbors on Gleason Avenue, which dead ends into Zion Cemetery. From their backyards, both have witnessed the cemetery’s turnaround and are grateful for its positive impact on the neighborhood. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

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,” Jamerson says. “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 the younger generation’s disconnect.

“[W]e got to know, hey, we got to 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.”

Jamerson hops back down from the truck engine.

“We got to do something fast, guys, because while we at each other’s neck … it’s gonna come a time when it’s too late.”

———-

Two days after McVay and the students pack up tools and leave town, approximately 60 Ku Klux Klan 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, named after the group’s founder, to Health Sciences Park.

News reports estimate more than 1,000 attend a counter rally.

“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.”

Robert Taylor, a life-long resident of Glenview, only began to notice the cemetery in the last few years, as the volunteers began renovations. South Memphis is a dangerous place, Taylor explains, but he is not fearful of the violence that surrounds him. “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” he says, while gazing at the setting sun. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

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 that stretches from the front meadows to the back forests, he notices minor details that have been shifted, uprooted and dragged away from his memory, much like racism throughout his lifetime.

When Johnson moved to a new neighborhood five years ago, he says, the two white residents next door didn’t move. Years ago, this would not have happened. What they did do, he says, was say was, “Welcome to the neighborhood.” Today, Johnson believes the racial divide exists in more subtle undertones. He talks about large national political movements like voter identification laws as “voter suppression,” which hurts “not just African-Americans but also elderly white people. Poor people in general.”

For Johnson, much like John Carroll, poverty is an undeniable divider.

“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 endorsing segregation; rather, he suggests that projects like the cemetery renovation can create new ties among a disconnected generation.

“A lot of it has to do with people not sitting down and talking to each other,” he elaborates. “Not trying to learn each other, not understanding that diversity is actually a good thing.”

Warner Dickerson, a former Memphis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president and current board member of the Zion Community Project, sits in his office at the Methodist Episcopal Church national headquarters, where he serves as program chair. He says the NAACP has struggled to receive support from young people over the years. JACOB BYK | THE BURR.

Cynthia Gray, who works a few blocks away at the Shell gas station on the corner of South Parkway and Bellevue Street, says she stopped walking through the cemetery years ago.

“You got all kinds of people there – up to no good,” she says, noting that prostitutes and drug dealers once operated in the cemetery in broad daylight.

When asked if she would return to the cemetery after the renovations, she says, “Sure, we would walk through it again [because] we wouldn’t be so scared. A lot of people used to walk through there to get their kids from school.”

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 is an emptied out tenement housing complex, a series of at least a dozen windowless buildings, all fenced in with barbed wire. In some cases, the doors hang open, creaking in the wind. Most are padlocked, covered in newspapers and boarded up. The houses in the immediate vicinity of the cemetery appear similar.

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 in which he puts himself into the shoes of slave owners 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.

As a young man at the University of Memphis, Dickerson says he was bitter, and that he hated whites. But as he studied and learned history, he says he changed. But during his time with the NAACP – an organization spawned in the aftermath of Moss’ lynching – Dickerson says he was baffled it didn’t receive much support from young people. 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 [race], then how do they know?”

“It’s a brainwashing process, both on the part of the oppressor and oppressed,” Dickerson continues. “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 says the renovation project is another tactic to combat racism, money and human imperfection, all “so simplistic you might miss it.”

After all, how do you eat an elephant, he asks?

One bite at a time.

For more on Zion Cemetery, see Jacob Byk’s photo essay in the May issue of The Burr.