Students clean up Tennessee cemetery during spring break

Elise Franco

When most students think about spring break they picture beaches, clubs and no chaperones looking over their shoulders.

Most wouldn’t think about digging up weeds in an old Memphis Tenn. cemetery from the 1800s, but Honors College coordinator Vicki Bocchicchio said that is exactly what a group of Kent State students do each spring.

Chris McVay, Pan-African studies and English department lecturer, came across the cemetery in Memphis during the summer of 2001 while helping a student with her senior honors thesis.

The thesis was about Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist who began an anti-lynching campaign during the late 1890s. McVay and her student wanted to film the cemetery that held the bodies of three of Wells’ friends who had been lynched in 1892, Bocchicchio said.

“When they found the cemetery they discovered that it had been neglected for decades,” she said. “This is the South of course, so it was over-grown with bamboo and all of that lush vegetation that grows in temperate climates.”

McVay said she was so bothered by the condition the cemetery was in that she decided to contact some friends in Memphis to find out if anything could be done.

In May 2002 the first group of Kent State students piled into a car and drove down to Memphis to begin the long overdue clean up of the historical site, Bocchicchio said.

“I think we only took about five students on that first trip,” McVay said. “I was amazed at how much we got done. At the end we could stand on the edge of the cemetery and see clearly maybe a half of a football field. It was a good feeling.”

McVay and Bocchicchio agree that since the first trip, more students have become interested in the project. In 2004 and 2005 a combined total of 45 students traveled to Memphis to work on the project.

Local groups and colleges in Memphis have also worked with the students to clean the cemetery. Churches in the community also provide meals and lodging for the groups.

The group typically starts in the morning and works in the cemetery through early afternoon digging up vegetation and clearing the land.

Already four of the 15 acres of cemetery have been cleared by the staff and students, Bocchicchio said.

It’s not all work though. The groups have visited the Civil Rights Museum, hosted a dinner in a church for a group of homeless citizens and enjoyed nights out on the town.

Katie Talbot, junior visual communication design major, has participated three times. She recommended exploring the city at night.

“Take a few nights and go out on the town; it’s a great place,” she said. “If you’re willing to put forth the money, you can take carriage rides, and there are a bunch of cool jazz clubs, too.

“There’s also Peabody’s, a really fancy hotel, and you can go up on the roof and look out over the entire city, which was also really cool.”

Senior zoology major Michelle Greathouse has also been on the trip several times. She said she decided to keep going back because she wanted to help restore the historical cemetery and give it some of the recognition it deserves.

While in Memphis, the group stays in Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Along with housing, all of the tools needed for the renovation and several meals are supplied by an organization called Hands On Memphis, Bocchicchio said. This means that the only money needed is for personal expenses.

McVay said she thinks students should have fun on spring break, so she understands why they choose to spend it on the beach. For some a trip to Florida or Cancun may not be an option, and Memphis is an alternative.

“Besides being considerably cheaper, students always say it’s such a rewarding experience and that they’ve met such wonderful and interesting people in Memphis that they would have never met or considered talking to otherwise,” she said.

This year the trip will take place March 26 through March 30.

Anyone interested in going to Memphis over spring break should contact Vicki Bocchicchio at [email protected] or Chris McVay at [email protected]

Contact undergraduate studies and Honors College reporter Elise Franco at [email protected]