Clearing Zion

Adam Griffiths

For nine Kent students, including our reporter, a weekend trip to Memphis is a living history lesson

Beverly Truitt, chops away at overgrown brush. The group had to be careful as the cemetery was overrun with poison ivy and prickly plants. KATIE ROUPE | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Steve Schirra

Correction: This story originally identified DaMareo Cooper as Azza Gallab’s boyfriend. This information was incorrect. The error occured in the reporting process.

As Chris McVay, pan-African studies and English lecturer, drove her RV full of Kent State students around downtown Memphis, Tenn., she observed about the sights around her.

“This town is so beat up,” she said.

As the RV approached a curve in the road, a fence and white arch appeared.

Zion Christian Cemetery is one of those places untouched by the influence of modern man, excepting the discarded tires, toilets and washing machines littered around. It’s a remote wasteland located in downtown Memphis. Automobiles pass. Pedestrians pass. There are houses directly across the street, apartments adjacent to the plot of land.

Each semester since spring of 2002, McVay has loaded up her RV with Kent State students, driven 12 hours to and from Memphis and devoted herself to the restoration of this cemetery.

McVay became involved with Zion Cemetery through a trip she took with an honors student in 2001. They were working to produce a documentary on the life of Ida B. Wells, a well-known journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign in 1892, when they came across the cemetery in their research.

The task of finding the three victims who inspired Wells’ efforts is what initially brought McVay to the cemetery.

“We thought we would come across a well-marked monument,” McVay said of her first visit to Zion Cemetery, “but you couldn’t see a single headstone from the road. You couldn’t even tell it was a cemetery.”

When she returned to Kent, McVay couldn’t forget the cemetery.

“I think the dead really recognized a real chump when they saw me coming,” she said. “And I like road trips. So I decided to come back down.”

Now, she has been bringing students down for almost five years.

Friday, Nov. 17

The group arrived at Zion Christian Cemetery early in the morning. A gold plastic clock in the RV was stuck at 11:47, which only made the ride to Memphis seem longer.

As the RV pulled into the cemetery for the first time, the group was quiet, tired from a late night and anxious to get started. They sat listening to jazz on the radio and absorbing the task before them.

The nine students and McVay dug into a battered plastic tub and, armed with machetes and large shears, started cutting into the 130-year-old cemetery that hasn’t been maintained for more than 30 years.

Joining the group at the cemetery was Estelle Bland, the great-niece of Wells. Bland is a small woman in her 80s who has been involved with Zion Cemetery since McVay started bringing students in 2002. She has family buried in the cemetery and is working to find their graves.

“Ya’ll know this here is a slave cemetery,” she told the group as everyone set out to work, cutting out overgrown weeds and pulling out small trees.

“This is real anger management,” said Matt Surdock, junior computer information systems major, as he hacked away at a stubborn stump.


“I thought it was a forest,” said Nicole Steward, senior sociology major, who has made the trip four times. “I had no idea how we would get anything accomplished.”

Steward, who was making her fourth trip to Memphis with McVay, said she fell in love with the cemetery and came back every year to see the progress being made.

“On one of the headstones, it says, ‘Gone, but not forgotten,’ but these people are forgotten,” Steward said. “No one is thinking about these people.”

Against a natural landscape of thickening brush, junior accounting major Sean Turpin wiped away dirt from a headstone to read the inscription. Steward was cutting weeds. Azza Gallab, junior pan-African studies major, listened to her iPod while chopping hard. Senior pan-African studies major DaMareo Cooper, and Surdock examined a piece of granite that was once a marker for a grave.

Visitors are common at the cemetery. Myrna Williams, who traveled from New York, was there to look for the grave of her grandmother. She made her first visit in 1998 when the cemetery was still completely overgrown. She still hasn’t found what she came to see, but was thankful for the students’ work.

It was hard for the group to get motivated in such a neglected place where headstones lay in pieces and vines wind through the mess.

But during a rest break that morning, Bland shared stories of her life as a black woman in Memphis. She spoke of Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic visit to the town and the discrimination she experienced growing up. She said she wore Levi’s blue jeans so that “when they dragged us, it wouldn’t scar.”

“Whether we want to hear it or not, it’s the truth,” she said.

It was kind of like a living a documentary, Turpin said.

“Hearing Estelle speak was just moving, to say the least,” he said. “To be there and to see those people’s graves, to just feel the atmosphere, it was odd. You’re in the presence of such significant events and such a significant time that no one talks about, but at the same time it couldn’t be cared for worse.”

Freshman exploratory major Ashlee Washington was amazed.

“I mean, there are trees growing out of some of the tomb stones,” she said.

Saturday, Nov. 18

Six members of Boy Scout Troop 565 of Memphis arrived shortly after the Kent State group. They were working toward their Eagle Scout rank and painted the arch at the entrance to the cemetery the weekend before.

A small group from the Tennessee College of Medicine also worked at the cemetery Saturday morning.

“It’s not hard to get people motivated,” said Gus Mealor, a fourth-year medical student. “This is something different that we can do, getting outside and recognizing the community.”

Sunday, Nov. 19

A 15-hour ride home gave the students time to reflect on the events of the past three days. Each took something different away from their half-acre dent into the overgrown mess.

For Turpin, it was history come alive.

“People were plucked out of their homes and strung up on trees and no one did anything about it,” he said. “To be so keenly aware of that was so moving.”

For Cooper, it was a matter of respect and remembrance.

“I hope that if my final resting place looks like that, someone would do the same for me,” he said.

McVay expressed the importance of the progress that has been made over the past five years in a paper she wrote about her experiences.

“The people who have worked, who are working and who will work on this project . are really the best part of the story,” it read. “And let’s not forget those buried in Zion Cemetery. All find their way into this story and leave their mark.”

Contact features reporter Adam Griffiths at [email protected].


For students who want to go more in-depth, Chris McVay, pan-African studies and English lecturer, offers a class each spring that explores various places and topics in black history.

After taking a few groups down to work on the cemetery in Memphis, Tenn., she worked with Victoria Bocchicchio, coordinator of curriculum in the Honors College, and created the elective, Raising The Dead: Rediscovering The Past.

For students who aren’t able to fit the class into their schedule, it is still possible to get involved in the Memphis project by contacting McVay. Students are only responsible for covering some of their food and entertainment expenses, and transportation and lodging is provided.

Bocchicchio, who has traveled with McVay to Memphis for all but one of the spring break trips, said most students enjoy their time and make repeat trips.

“When we go over spring break, we typically have a lot of opportunity for students to meet the community,” Bocchicchio said. “There’s really a sense of connection to Memphis. They get a lot of immediate and positive feedback.”

The first weeks of the course are spent investigating the life of the white abolitionist John Brown. The class visits the John Brown house in Akron, and they also travel one weekend to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to see the site of his famous last stand.

Next, McVay said the course focuses on Frederick Loudin, who was one of the first directors of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Tennessee. The Jubilee Singers traveled all over the world and are credited with introducing the world to black music.

The end of the course focuses on the life of Ida B. Wells, in preparation for the spring break trip to Memphis.

On the way to Memphis, the class visits Jubilee Hall at Fisk University in Nashville. They also take one day and visit the Ida B. Wells museum in Holly Springs, Miss. McVay said that sometimes she takes students to the National Civil Rights Museum if there is time. The remainder of the trip is spent working to restore Zion Cemetery.

Those interested can contact McVay at (330) 672-0164 or [email protected] for more information.