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Historic Midtown cemetery filled with trash, neighbors concerned

Trash fills the walled-off area of the Bettis Family Cemetery on Madison and Angelus. Neighbors have started an initiative to clean the site.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The oldest marked grave in Shelby County lies in an unusual area: between a Cash Saver and a Home Depot. Neighbors have become concerned as garbage currently fills the inside of the Bettis Family Cemetery.

The Midtown cemetery contains what used to be about 15 graves of members of the Bettis family, who lived in Shelby County before Memphis was founded. Located at Madison and Angelus, the Bettis Family Cemetery is on what used to be the Bettis family farm.

The historical marker in front of the Bettis cemetery.

The only standing grave currently there is for both Tillman Bettis and his wife Sally Bettis. Sally died giving birth in 1826, and her grave is thought to be the oldest marked grave in the county.

There are a few more unreadable flat headstones on the ground, but there aren’t any other upright graves. What is plentiful at the site: trash. Neighbor R.J. Jukes said he knew it was time for more care to go into such a historic place.

“I’d like to see it maintained and just see a little more pride in it because of what it is historically to the city of Memphis,” Jukes said. “It’s awesome in here, and to look like this is just sad.

Jukes is a music historian and a Memphis tour guide. He was putting together a cemetery tour and planned to add Bettis to the list. That’s when he made another trip to the cemetery and found the condition it is in: filled with all kinds of trash and paraphernalia.

“I’ve been coming here for 20 years, and I’ve seen a little trash, and I’ve found a few homeless people maybe, but nothing that compares to this,” Jukes said.

When Jukes noticed the trash, he posted about it on the Next Door app, and he was amazed by the feedback and the people willing to help clean the site.

The grave for Tillman Bettis.

Stemming from Jukes’ post, there is currently a clean-up excursion planned for March 15 around 4 p.m., but the date and time are tentative. He said about 15 people have told him they will help with the effort.

The property is owned by Home Depot, according to the Shelby County Assessor of Property. The company bought it when they bought the adjacent land for their store in 2002.

Jukes said Midtown residents have been good about taking up causes to help the community, but hardly anyone he talked with knew the cemetery existed. He thinks the location is the reason for that.

“All it’s really got out there is that marker,” Jukes said. “The wall—you don’t really realize it’s here. Who would think there’s a cemetery behind a Piggly Wiggly, as I still call it, but a Cash Saver?”

Jukes said he hopes Home Depot can offer discounted material for people wanting to fix up the cemetery, and he wants to get a crew to check on it periodically to make sure it doesn’t get to this state again.

“They (Home Depot) have got a store to run,” Jukes said. “They’re not cemetery proprietors. I think they’re rather shocked that they have a cemetery. It’s not something Home Depot is known for.”

When Home Depot bought the property, there was talk of moving it to Elmwood Cemtery. But Jukes said he thinks it’s good history to have in the community as long as it is cared for.

A spokesperson for Home Depot told WREG, “The Home Depot has been committed to maintaining this property for many years. We’re taking steps to correct this oversight and are scheduling a clean-up day this week.”

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