MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — With muddy shoes and rain falling, a group of Orange Mound historians and community members unveiled a marker engraved with the names of 30 enslaved Africans on the site of the plantation where they toiled.
“For every raindrop, those were tears of joy of our ancestors — just crying in ecstasy because they knew this day was coming,” said Orange Mound historian Mary Mitchell as she stood on the land where enslaved people are thought to be buried.
The group of about 40 gathered the morning of Aug. 20 at the Deaderick Family Cemetery, off Park Avenue near Grand Street, for the “Naming the Enslaved” event to unveil a historic marker dedicated to those enslaved by John Deaderick in the 1800s.
Project 1890, a new collaboration between the Orange Mound Heritage and Preservation Society and the Orange Mound Arts Council, held the event to help preserve and interpret the neighborhood’s history.
The crowd, along with Michael Deaderick, a descendant of the plantation owner, stood on what once was Deaderick Plantation, 5,000 acres of land which is now a part of Orange Mound.
“As a Deaderick descendant, it is really an honor to be here,” Michael Deaderick said. “This is a sign of the great progress we’ve made but we’ve got a long way to go.”
He said the monument could be a step toward reconciliation and that the city, and the country, could use more gestures of the type.
Michael Deaderick said no direct descendants of John Deaderick are left in Memphis.
John Deaderick bought the plantation in the early 1800s and the names of 30 enslaved individuals — which are now engraved on the marker — were listed in the inventory of the family’s 1832 estate, according to research by genealogist Teresa Mays and historian Cynthia Sadler.
“Though we do not know exactly where they are buried on the plantation, this marker erected within this white space is a symbol of the Black lives who created an enslaved community and representing African American placement in Shelby County,” Sadler said.
Sadler said those enslaved ranged from 0 to 60 years old.
A group dressed in colorful African clothing played native music on flutes and shekeres, a hand percussion instrument, as the community members remembered the plantation’s history.
“Our ancestors did not die in vain,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, 84, remembers the cemetery stretching down Park Avenue and as a child hesitantly passed by it with friends “pretending we saw ghosts right in there.”
“As I learned the history, the cemetery meant so much more to me because I knew what it represented,” Mitchell said. “As a child it was just a scary, spooky thing.”
Graham Perry, a Tennessee Historical Commission preservation specialist, attended as part of the Cemetery Preservation Program which identifies and protects historic cemeteries.
“This marker is a symbol of reconciliation,” Perry said. “Reconciliation is something that is going to take hundreds of years but we must try, we must find ways to educate people and this is one way.”