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Property with connections to black history in Memphis is reborn after fire

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There's a spot with some deep historical roots, not far from the Memphis airport, that is having a rebirth.

Back on Christmas we told you that a building belonging to a historical society founded by descendants of slaves burned down. As we celebrate Memphis' bicentennial, there is now a story of new beginnings for the historical chapter.

Construction at the home of the International Pallbearers' Association off Tchulahoma Road is almost complete. A pavilion sits where a building once stood.

"What I wanted to do is give honor to them and have an open pavilion type of setting," explained Errol Harmon, the chairman of the International Pallbearers Association.

When we first saw the building it was charred, collapsed after the concrete was brought to rubble.

This is what the building looked like after a fire in December.

Harmon explained to us then the significance of the group that operated in the spot, the International Pallbearers Association, which was founded back in 1889 by former descendants of slaves, he said.

Harmon said after his original Christmas Day interview was on WREG, several people reached out. One was a man named John Shaw.

We met with Shaw and Harmon at the pavilion and grave sites that sit off Tchulahoma.

"I did not think the Chapter was still active. So the article on y'all's website revealed that there is still an active Chapter 9," explained Shaw.

The two men began emailing.

Harmon admitted he was initially caught a little off guard by what Shaw would want from him.

Turns out, Shaw is working on a masters thesis about black fife and drum bands. He wanted to know more about Harmon's chapter.

He began Sharing with Harmon dozens of newspaper articles he had unearthed from back in the 1800s.

"I began to read about the organization and what they did back in 1867 all the way during Reconstruction. Once Africans were freed from bondage my ancestors in this community were advocating for civil rights not just for Africans but for all people throughout the community. The needy, the poor and the sick," Harmon said.

Originally his society was called the International Pole Bearers.

"They started advocating for the 1875 Civil Rights Act. They were even out during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1878 where they aided families, they buried the dead and they assisted the sick."

Shaw said it feels good to be able to share important history.

"Oh it's awesome. It's awesome to make this stuff available."

Harmon showed us the legacy from members of the chapters off Tchulahoma.

"My great, great, great grandmother actually got off of the ship on auction block and she was able to rise from that. She was born in 1812 and she died in 1904, so that is one of the earliest graves we have here," he said.

On the afternoon we met with Harmon, he had arranged for Shaw to interview some of his relatives about fife and drum bands.

He talked to them about the earlier picnics the pallbearers would throw, with the snare drum, bass drum and the flutes, or fifes.

Right now Harmon's group with about 200 members helps with funerals and funeral arrangements.

"As a result of the fire it sparked another interest. What I want to do is I want to be able to just step outside of our membership and to assist people in the community of Memphis as a whole," Harmon explained.

He says it is a lesson from the fire and something to think about as we celebrate Memphis' bicentennial.

" We're right here on the bluff and there are so many wonderful opportunities and one thing we need to do is just reach back and touch our neighbors. Just like I had an opportunity to speak with a gentleman I had never met before and we've developed a bond and a friendship all about just learning more and just growing."

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