Meaningful Memphis - Rose Hill Project, pt 1
I understand a little about grafting, where you grow a new tree with the trunk of one and a piece of another. I’ve even seen a tree that grew half one flower and half another. My project at the Rose Hill Cemetery was sort of like that. As a seeker of unique events and opportunities, I saw an ad for a memorial ceremony honoring a Memphis musician from a past era – Frank Stokes. The Mount Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF) was unveiling a new marker at his grave, their first outside Mississippi. The organization has located and marked many musicians, the famed and forgotten. I knew nothing of Stokes’ music, really nothing of Memphis music prior to Memphis Recording/Sun Studios or BB King, so I thought it might be a good way to learn something. That ceremony on a steam bath June day in South Memphis turned out to be a “root” moment in my Memphis life and experience. On that day I met a few musicians I follow closely, fellow history and music lovers, and MZMF Executive Director Dr. T. DeWayne Moore. I also got my first look at the Center for Southern Folklore and met Judy Peiser, who instantly got my attention and pledge of support. I volunteered for the Center’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival for two years. The list of folks I met through the Festival – musicians, artists, fellow volunteers, and one colorful old baseball player – continue to enrich my life and inspire me.
Once I decided on Memphis as my new prospective home – I suppose someday I’ll talk about “the list” - I visited first for a job fair, then just a quick visit to scout possible job and living locations. I came into the city on a Sunday afternoon and found the Episcopal Church I saw online with a later service on Sunday. That was my first visit to Grace-St. Luke’s and when I moved into a nearby apartment six months later I decided it would be my church. Within a few months and after a few “aftershock” health scares I started a volunteer opportunity there, but I wanted to get involved in a church committee. After two years I was invited to join the Outreach Committee. Basically, Outreach manages grants and “a number of ongoing efforts and projects that reach out to impact the lives of others.” I asked for and was accepted as the committee’s liaison to the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), whose mission is “Uniting the Community through Service.”
I kept a couple of blogs on Tumblr and some pictures on Flickr, but I wanted a platform with more vowels, no ads, and easier access. I began this project to tell the story of those unique events and places and people, and my interactions with them, with a focus on music. I also went to a Memphis show featuring a band from New Orleans I had seen and met there – of course the band outnumbered the audience. I thought if I could just get one more butt in a seat… My first story was about the MZMF Frank Stokes memorial event. Sometime later Dr. Moore looked at my story, corrected me on a couple of points, and asked me to join the search for the grave of another Memphis legend. I saw another opportunity to learn, since I knew nothing of Charlie Burse or the Memphis Jug Band – except they recorded “The Lindberg Hop” – because I saw Side Street Steppers while volunteering at The Center for Southern Folklore. I told him I had some time that weekend (I’m still laughing at myself!). I headed to Rose Hill Cemetery in South Memphis wondering what I would find, hoping I could find and photograph a grave, bring up a Memphis Jug Band song on my phone, holler out a celebratory yell, and send DeWayne a message. When I arrived, I found a tree blocking any vehicle from entering the gate – a large tree, uprooted by a recent storm, leaving a hole in the road where the roots tore up and covering several graves near the entrance. A sign, I was sure, of challenges ahead.
After a few hours of walking the grounds, challenged by the many sunken graves, I found a Burse, just not the one I was after. I sent a message and a picture, not the one I hoped to send, and then left the project for a few months. When I came back to it, the challenges of Rose Hill truly came to light. Benjamin Hooks Library had a small file of news stories. Two stuck out. I’ve talked about the 1994 murders earlier – and where that story pointed me – but it was another murder, in 1979, which placed more “uneven ground” in my path. There were deceptive business practices at the cemetery, evidenced by bones found on the ground. Funeral parlors were fined and the cemetery investigated. While under investigation the owner was murdered, stabbed to death, his vehicle with the records dumped in the Mississippi River. The mystery took a personal turn when I returned to scan the articles a few days later and the folder had disappeared!
I began trying to contact Pastor Leonard Dawson of Cane Creek Missionary Baptist Church – phone calls, emails, Facebook messages – with no luck. Finally I stopped at the church on Elvis Presley Boulevard for about the sixth time and was directed to a gentleman in jeans and shoveling dirt in his church’s historic cemetery (Cane Creek was founded in 1863). His quiet manner hid his fire, but his calm voice spoke powerful words – the Holy Spirit drove him to help this neighborhood, and Rose Hill Cemetery was part of that neighborhood. He had organized area ministers to address ongoing issues, built a new church and Life Center to serve the faith community, and worked with local politicians to clean up, fence, and maintain Rose Hill. His fire rekindled motivation in me. He invited me to the monthly meeting of the area ministers.
I was further moved upon meeting Linda Marks at MIFA. Born out of tragedy, the service organization was celebrating 50 years, founded five months after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. MIFA planned a celebration of service, with congregations of different religions working together. Oddly enough I had a project in mind. I was about to propose grafting my seemingly disparate roots and branches together.