Meaningful Memphis - Rose Hill Project, pt 2


(Leonard Dawson Jr., Pastor, Cane Creek Missionary Baptist Church)

I left my job with the federal government, in part, because I spent all my energy “on the clock.” I had nothing left to help anyone or any organization. One of my goals coming to Memphis was to get more involved in my community. I walked into St Luke’s Episcopal Church in Coeur d’Alene Idaho in a search for a place to publicly worship again, after not regularly going to church (except every year when I visited my Mother) in about 25 years, half my life at the time. That notion and action were deliberate on my part. On the other hand, if you follow my project on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter you see me title some pieces “Memphis Meander” which is me just walking around the city or stumbling into things. When I attended the Mount Zion Fund memorial for Frank Stokes and volunteered for Grace-St Luke’s Outreach Committee, I had no idea I would spend months planning a project or if people I didn’t really know would help, or even who to engage. I had those types of opportunities and challenges in my former life, with events that took months to plan or planting ideas that took years to bear fruit, part of my role as a deliberate planner for which I was paid. My “Memphis Meander” has become a symbol of just facing opportunities and challenges as they come.

Now to action! I had no good idea how to pull this off. First I just talked to folks – would I get support? My number one guide and supporter from the start was Edith Heller. She is my connection to any and all resources and my advocate. She helped me pitch the project to the Outreach Committee as part of our partnership with the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA). We gained approval from the committee and our incoming Rector. I then went to Pastor Dawson’s group, the Hamilton Ministerial Alliance. Typically a group of four ministers, they share the common goal of serving their congregations and neighbors. Sitting with them has been a truly educational experience. They have educated me in all things Memphis from a religious but primarily African-American point of view – a different conversation than I could have had with even the most forthright veterans I saw at my job, the overwhelming majority also being African-American. I sat as they talked of history, politics, neighborhood problems, motivating church members, and through it a belief we could all do better – with God’s help. The high points (so far) of this relationship have been my first experience with worship in a Black church – Dawson wonders how we still maintain mostly segregated churches – and spending a few quiet minutes with probably the most inspiring person I have met to date here – Pastor Leonard Dawson Jr. His faith and mission are a matter of practicality. He commands respect without demanding it. His steady tone almost hides his fire, but it’s there, right below the surface. Of course he accepted my offer. I went to MIFA with a simple plan – we would get together and beautify that uneven ground of so much deceit and tragedy, and highlight a few areas and markers in this abandoned African-American burial ground of Rose Hill Cemetery.

My summer became a whirlwind of coordinating, convincing, consternation – and learning. I had two things in mind – bring evergreens into a purely deciduous landscape, beautiful in summer but barren in winter, and create a striking visual to accompany the greenery – the bright white of magnolias and crape myrtle, a splash of color at a few focal points, and roses. I thought Rose Hill should have roses. I also planned to repaint a metal gazebo, dirty and rusting, back to its original white. Pastor Dawson’s number one goal is to fill the cemetery’s sunken graves, the result of wooden caskets or no containers used at all to bury remains. I added that if we could do that, we could plant something special on the graves. While I was toying with this visual, another Grace-St. Luke’s (GSL) friend pointed me to John Jennings, manager of Urban Earth Garden Center, also a church member. I met him, ran my vision through his expertise, and he came up with plants in his inventory that might help my ideas materialize. He also nailed down what to top the filled graves with – a hardy white clover. He came up with an inventory and advice, essentially becoming a project sponsor, since he sold us all the plants at well below retail prices. He also posed a question I could not answer – what about water?

I had bigger problems on my mind– who would plant those 23 bushes and trees? How/with what would we fill the graves? How was I going to coordinate all this with a job that kept me jumping “bell to bell?”

I started with dirt. Someone referred me to a golf course developer, another to the home builders’ association, a third to swimming pool installers (in ground). I noticed construction going on at a university. One by one, I contacted them with no result. This took weeks, stealing minutes out of busy work days. But I give everyone I contacted credit. I got return emails and phone calls, everyone tried, and some reached out to others in their networks to help. Most came to the same conclusion – fill dirt was available, but transportation was costly. Now, you may think “How much does it cost to move a little dirt?” I completed my third full survey of the cemetery to guesstimate how much we might need. There are about 250 sunken graves there, some shallow ovals, some full-on empty burial plots. On average, each would take around a cubic yard or more to fill. I lowballed an estimate as to not overwhelm a potential donor – and still came up empty. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell promised support to fill the graves if I obtained the material before he left office on August 30. He had been directing corrections crews to maintain Rose Hill, solving the problem of rats and snakes (some with legs) using the cemetery for all sorts of nasty business. The inmates were doing a great job of cutting and cleaning. Meanwhile I approached a group I thought most likely to help with the planting – our church’s Boy Scout troop. I was pretty nervous standing in front of their annual planning meeting – and they had two major events scheduled on the weekend of MIFA’s project dates. I tried to inspire with the Memphis history, outdoor opportunity, and key individuals buried there – I left out the murders. I wasn’t sure if I had any support, but Troop Leader Jim Martin left me hopeful.

I thought I would secure material resources first and then work volunteers. That would have been nice and neat. I actually swung back and forth between coordinating both. I reached out to the City of Memphis. First I asked the Fire Department for water – those sprayers can deliver a large amount as soft as rain when set up correctly. It wouldn’t take more than a half hour to deliver what I needed once we were done planting. One of their staff compared my request to the folks that call asking them to fill their swimming pools (Really? People ask that?); then the Deputy Director officially, politely, turned me down. Okay, I had two alternative plans. I contacted Solid Waste, since John told me they had compost to give away. They went to work right away, referring me to Memphis City Beautiful to make an official request and to get me needed tools. These two agencies in city government were the easiest to coordinate with and City Beautiful continues to help. Within no time I had 80+ yards of material – leaf compost - on site, courtesy of Mr. Barry Levine from Solid Waste. I worked primarily with Ms. Cyndy Grivich-Tucker to plan for tool loan – wheel barrows, rakes, and shovels.

Still, I had to solve the volunteer and logistics – and dirt – issues. I went to the church’s Vestry, the lay leadership. I didn’t think I made an impact. The next week, however, turned out to be pivotal. Seems a Vestry member was willing to connect me with City Mayor Jim Strickland. Mitch Graves set the meeting up and included Memphis Light Gas, and Water (MLGW) and a surprise. I highlighted three interments every time I talked to a group or individual. One was Charlie Burse, my starting point in the cemetery; another the Lee/Mays/ Robinson children – five kids who perished in a house fire in 1975, aged 4 months to 12 years old – who I found during that first survey; and Cornelia Crenshaw. It was the Hamilton group that told me about her and I researched her story from there. Ms. Crenshaw was involved in the 1968 Sanitation Strike, had met with Dr. King, then made a personal protest after the strike was settled the solid waste fee put in place after the strike to pay for the workers’ concessions. Since it is part of the MLGW bill, not paying it leads to no utilities – which she did and subsequently went without utilities for years. She also protested billing practices which contributed to MLGW accepting partial payments instead of cutting off families in need. She supported the local unions so they supported her. So a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Rick Thompson, was there. I had hoped the city’s water supplier could help with water, but they deliver by system and have no water trucks. Mr. Thompson has a tree trimming business so he promised to cut the dead tree just inside the entrance. His work led to one of the major immediate impacts at Rose Hill (part 3). But of course, meeting with the Mayor had and continues to have a major impact. We also had another breakthrough. A church member, who wishes to remain anonymous, wanted to donate money to purchase the fill dirt. I made a second estimate and found the best and least expensive vendor – Sandman, who supplies our state veterans’ cemetery. He agreed to the amount as a personal favor and in honor of Edith Heller.

All but one piece was in progress. I canceled plans to see the Red Sox in Atlanta around Labor Day to finish coordinating the project, scheduled for Saturday September 8.

 How did i get here? 

In my journeys over the last three years, both physical and personal/internal, I have discovered Memphis and a drive to create. This site will display my goals to informally promote and tell stories about Memphis and the surrounding areas - music, culture, history - through my observations, photography, and telling the stories of people I meet along the way.

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