This past weekend, I visited South-View Cemetery with a few friends. South-View was granted its charter on April 21, 1886 and so became the first for-profit cemetery for African Americans in the United States. Beneath the names of the six men who established this charter reads its statement of purpose: “To provide a respectable place for Christian burials.” In chartering South-View as an African American burial ground, black people could now enter through the front gates, follow the processional on dry land without swampy obstacles before them, and thus reject the many forms of degradation undermining attempts to dignify black American life and death.
I was originally drawn to South-View because it was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s original burial. I had been interested in the route his body took from Memphis, to Sisters Chapel on the campus of Spelman College, to Ebenezer Baptist Church, to Morehouse College, and finally to South-View. King’s body resided in South-View until early January of 1970 when Mrs. King had his body reinterred in a crypt on Auburn Avenue (this would eventually become the site for the Martin Luther King Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change).
D.L. Henderson, South-View Cemetery’s historian, correctly notes that King’s story isn’t the only one there. There are as many stories as there are bodies. Some of the more interesting ones for me were those of the victims of the 1906 Atlanta Riots, the space where the unmarked graves where seven of the victims of the Atlanta child murders lie, and the Vietnam veteran whose grave was once directly across from Martin Luther King, Jr. :
This visit reminded me of a very interesting article that I read in the Washington Post a few years back about an aging caretaker of a rural African-American cemetery in Loudoun County, Virginia. For more than fifty years, Vernon Peterson, 80, has taken care of Rock Hill cemetery where African Americans have buried their kin since 1889. Upon ending his service to the United States Army, Peterson returned home and found the cemetery in disrepair. He immediately began weeding around the graves and for $50 a year to meet expenses, he continues to maintain the cemetery.
I was struck by one of the photographs accompanying the article where Peterson is shown plotting the graves of every single person buried in the cemetery in a book to be given to his successor:
The photographer has captured the eloquence of Mr. Peterson’s quiet work, the care he shows in making a record of lives. His hand unhurried, Peterson enters the names of many people he never knew, and some he did, between neatly drawn lines that strive for the order he endeavors to give the places where their bodies rest.
I am intrigued by Mr. Peterson’s use of time. I admire the discipline it takes to honor self-given tasks. School and work often impose deadlines that force action, without such pressures, some tasks may never be completed. Peterson, on the other hand, is his own master since he directs his own tasks. He’s a wonderful example of how to be free.