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A Graveyard Marker-Project 1890

A Graveyard Marker-Project 1890

     On August 20, 2021, The Orange Mound Heritage Association and the Orange Mound Arts Council brought to the attention of our city, and more importantly to the Orange Mound Community, the first names of slaves who had lawfully served on the vast 5000-acre Deaderick Plantation before and during the Civil War (Their sur-names are lost if they had them.)

     In 1832, John G. Deaderick listed in his wealth and inventory, along with wagons and plows, 30 men and women slaves between the ages of 2 and 60. The enormous statue of Confederate officer, likewise a slave owner, in a public park that bore his name, was removed the month the monument for Memphis slaves was erected in Orange Mound.

     A reverent ceremony signaled, for those of us attending, the gratitude and respect for men and women who had been stripped of gratitude and respect. They, the new heroes, likely would have been struck in disbelief had they a notion then that 150 plus years later a small crowd would memorialize them with a noble monument next to crumbling Deaderick head stones within the fenced-in family cemetery.

     These common names, Fillis, Peter, Henry, Jessie, Griffin, Cealey , Mary, Milly, lsaac, Sharlotte, Maddison, Peggy, Frank, Randle, Pascal, Gennie, Manuel, Amy, Sarah, Monroe, Jane, Burrell, Washington, Tom, Martha, Violet, Westley, Julia, Katey, and Duncan were uncommonly lauded in silent testimony of their history of struggle.  The legacy of these 30, rather than built on known, notable accomplishments, is even more cherished as it was birthed in painful subjugation.

     Their actual graves were most likely never marked by more than a rock or stick.  Now, the foundational DNA of Orange Mound’s first residents on a slave -based plantation, has been noted, preserved, and valued. Marking their place, establishes early placemaking for Shelby County and the coordinates of the boundaries of Orange Mound.

     This community has loyal pride in its origins, yet little recorded history exists.  Their story has too many gaps in the storyline. The chronicle is told in pass-down fashion with imagination and pride.  The slaves are among the ancestors.

     Laying to rest with dignity and honor those the long-dead slave owners called property maybe helps to bring healing and a new day. Perhaps the scant history recorded, saves Orange Mound residents from reliving the brutality of slavery known and recorded elsewhere.

     All who have roots here continue to hope for a tree -lined neighborhood reminiscent of the original Orange Mound. Pulling up the stumps of decayed trees across the entire neighborhood is a good place to begin.

“Begin afresh and plant new trees” is in the chorus they sing now.

     Little remains from the first scratch in the dirt of 1889.  The homes were designed on conventional foundations and made of hardwood, but not wood hard enough.  

     A friend of mine has preserved a rusted iron water pipe for the Orange Mound Museum yet to be formalized. She discovered it when new plumbing was installed.  It is a piece of art sculpture to her. A tangible artifact most would see as a reason for a tetanus shot. It is a beautiful thing to the beholder of nostalgic reflections.

     Oral history has been the source for African Americans in Orange Mound and some of the detail has been lost with time. What is known is that the wealth of the Deadrick family was built on the backs of slaves and the thriving community that was the original Orange Mound was built by their descendants through ingenuity and hard work. That Orange Mound is still remembered by a few.

     There are scores of us still living in Memphis who descended from the founding fathers. We must reckon with our past as well. Our ancestors participated in that portion of our nation’s ignominious history.

     On that rainy day in August, I was the one weeping at the cemetery ceremony.  My neighborhood friends were rejoicing in dance and song.  Forgiving the atrocities done against their ancestors is their heart-filled choice. Mine is to apologize for those from whom we descend, seek forgiveness, and resolve to pursue authentic reconciliation.  I, and people like me, must do our part to bridge the current national racial divide.

     Orange Mound is leading courageously once again. There is renewed hope because those who were in the graveyard with me have forgiven us and begun a fresh start.  Redemption defines historic Orange Mound.