MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An African American cemetery dating back more than a century is in the middle of a Berclair neighborhood. You may not know it’s there. In fact, the pastor of the church it belongs to just found out about it.
The land is tucked behind a daycare and laundromat off Berclair Road.
“It’s devastating to be honest with you,” said Charles Harvey, pastor at St. Stephens Baptist Church. “This was a cemetery. If you look at it, it doesn’t look like it, but it’s a cemetery.”
It’s where members of his church once buried their loved ones. The land was purchased in the late 1800s and the first burial was in the early 1900s.
“Some say there were 60 people buried here. Others say there were more, 100 or more,” said Harvey. “I heard some were soldiers. Some were soldiers.”
St. Stephen Baptist Church is in Raleigh today, but used to be in the Berclair neighborhood. Harvey said his church moved out of Berclair in 1960, and they eventually sold all of the property except where the cemetery sits.
He also said he didn’t know the cemetery even existed, until he became pastor about a year and a half ago. He said he’s been doing research and discovered sometime in the 1970s all of the headstones were removed.
“Someone came in and dozed off the cemetery,” he said.
We pored through old Commercial Appeal articles in the Memphis library archives, and found an article written in 1979. It mentions some of the tombstones from an abandoned Berclair cemetery were found dumped off Macon Road. They didn’t know who removed the tombstones, but the registrar’s office said it was trying to find out more.
In 2017, Jeff Droke spoke to WREG Investigators about the cemetery he remembered playing in as a kid. It’s been his mission to find out what happened to it, and today, he is still searching for answers.
“There’s two parts to this equation,” Droke said, now that the land turned into a homeless encampment.
Since last summer, Droke and other neighbors have contacted the city, Memphis police and council members about the encampment. They cited blight and safety concerns.
The city’s crime tracking map shows theft, weapon violations and drugs have been reported in the area within the last few weeks. It’s unclear if the people camping here were involved.
Police did say in January, they found a van parked behind the laundromat, along the cemetery, and the people inside had meth, marijuana and fentanyl.
“They saw what was going on and the city was like, yeah. We need to clean this up,” Droke said.
But the cleanup isn’t easy. We learned the city of Memphis contacted the Hospitality Hub, a group working to end homelessness. They have since sent their Street Outreach Team to the site to help.
“So that’s the team of people who go out in the community to meet people where they are to try to introduce themselves, hear what that person may be experiencing, what support they need and then offer that support,” Jessica Houari said. “We face a lot of mental health disabilities and addiction.”
She’s the Director of Program Operations for the Hospitality Hub. She said it takes time to build trust.
“If we do it right, the folks there will eventually accept services and then we work with them to get them into emergency shelter and long term, permanently housed,” she said.
Harvey said he wants to make sure the next steps are done right.
“It didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s going to take us some time to get it to where it needs to be,” he said.
He said they put up no trespassing signs, and will eventually put up a fence and memorial.
“We have to find out who’s where,” he said.
He’s working to discover more about this land and make sure it’s not forgotten.
How to get involved:
The Hospitality Hub said it’s been getting more calls for their services in the last two years. If you would like to help their efforts, click here.