Some of you know I’m coordinating a beautification project at Rose Hill, an historic African-American cemetery, beautiful but abandoned property with a horrible past, in South Memphis. This weekend I was given the task of finding the earliest burial or record I could discover. Most of the property records and burial plots were lost to its sordid history (in the course of an owner’s murder), and many of the graves, including the one who put me on this path – Charlie Burse of the legendary Memphis Jug Band – are lost to time and neglect.
I found a document transferring the property from the Rose Hill Company to trustees SJ Shephard and John C Adams (I think-crazy cursive!) from March 1929. The cemetery and company existed before that, since the deed references a January 1902 partition from a large tract of land belonging to William Person Jr. Person Avenue runs prominently through the area from the Mississippi River through Highway 51 (South Bellevue, now Elvis Presley Boulevard, adjacent to Rose Hill) to Airways Boulevard. More importantly, though I know his wasn’t the first burial at Rose Hill Cemetery, I found Nathan Armour.
Mr. Armour was born in rural Somerville, but moved to Memphis and lived in the Binghampton neighborhood. A poor black man pushing a broom during the Great Depression, I’m sure he was happy to have a job and probably thought the congestion and breathing issues he was having were just a cold – it was the end of January after all. But then it got worse. He left his job for the city and went home sick on January 24th and got progressively worse. Had he been born in a later decade, bed rest and antibiotics probably would have cured him– he also would have had access to professional care, something in short supply for African-Americans in Memphis in 1939. But this was not reality at the time. By the time Doc Prioleaux was called, it was too late. Armour died in his house on Harrell Street, now an empty lot behind Early Grove Baptist Church, on January 31, 1939, the same day President Roosevelt caused a stir with isolationists when he said “…if the Rhine frontiers are threatened the rest of the world is too.” Nathan Armour was too old to go to war, but too young to die. He left his loving wife Cathan at 49 years old. His stone is flat on the ground in the Northeast corner of Rose Hill Cemetery. Look here in the near future for an opportunity to honor him and the hundreds of other stories still being told from that beautiful property in South Memphis.