Saving the Stories

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Only one person knew who was buried where in Gary’s Creek Cemetery. Now, thanks to Chris Collier, all that information is recorded where anyone can find it and use it for family history.

All it took was a call to Gary’s Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Tennessee for Chris Collier to find the perfect Eagle Scout project.

Chris, a member of the Memphis First Ward, Memphis North Stake, says, a little nervously, “This is something that’s never been done before.” Gary’s Creek church asked him to document its cemetery—the oldest black cemetery in Shelby County.

Chris first needs to meet everyone involved and decide how much help he will need on the project. He drives to Gary’s Creek Cemetery on a road paved over the old stagecoach line. As soon as he steps out of the car, he has to swat at a mosquito. It’s the height of Tennessee heat in August, and it’s so humid you can practically drink the air. But that isn’t going to stop Chris.

Buried Stories

There’s a group waiting for him at the gate to the cemetery. Mr. Lacy, who has many ancestors buried here, greets Chris. “This cemetery is a gold mine for genealogists,” Mr. Lacy tells Chris as he adjusts his wide-brimmed hat. “Think of all those people’s stories buried under the ground.” Mr. Lacy has uncovered the story of one of his ancestors buried here—Joseph H. Harris, better known as “Free Joe.” He wrote two books about Free Joe’s adventures and is turning them into a Hollywood screenplay.

Chris walks through the cemetery with his notebook and camera. The huge trees’ heavy branches droop in the heat, and thick emerald grass covers some of the grave markers completely. There are all types of people buried here, from tiny babies to Civil War veterans. Some of the markers are simple rusty spikes in the ground; others have hand-carved names in aged, chipped stones. Nobody can tell what they say, except for the caretaker, Mr. Brooks.

Time Is Running Out

Mr. Brooks has been caretaker of Gary’s Creek Cemetery since 1939. He moves slowly around the cemetery with the help of his cane and quietly points out different grave markers to Chris. Mr. Brooks is the only one who knows the names on and locations of all the graves. His father was caretaker before him.

“I used to walk around the cemetery with my father while he helped me memorize the graves,” Mr. Brooks says. Many of the graves are unmarked, and the only documentation is in Mr. Brooks’s memory. If Mr. Brooks dies, the information dies with him. Chris isn’t going to let that happen.

More than Family History

Leslie Louthain, the director of the LDS family history center in the area, and her husband are also here to help. She gives Chris tips on how to put all the information in a database. He’ll give one copy to the Gary’s Creek church and send one to the Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

Sister Louthain thoughtfully examines a grave marker near the woods until she discovers there is more than family history in this cemetery.

“There are snakes in those trees!” she shrieks. Her husband laughs, and she heads for higher ground.

As Chris wraps up his first visit, he sighs. “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. This one cemetery could be a lot of separate projects,” he says. But he isn’t afraid to plunge in anyway.

Writing It Down

Chris doesn’t feel so overwhelmed when he comes back with a big group of teens to help him. The ladies from Gary’s Creek church provide lunch, and it isn’t as hot, because now it’s well into autumn.

Chris divides up the teens into groups to document the graves, with the help of Mr. Lacy and Mr. Brooks, of course. You can barely tell who belongs to which church because everyone is mixed together, trying to get all the information recorded.

As Chris wraps it all up, everyone is pleased. The members of Gary’s Creek church can rest easy, knowing the information in their vast cemetery has been preserved, and Chris’s group can be satisfied knowing they’ve helped preserve information for future family history work.

The cemetery seems a little more peaceful now, thanks to Chris, because the richness of its history won’t be lost. Who knows what stories might later be uncovered?

As Chris takes a reflective look around the cemetery, Mr. Lacy says, “Family history is going to be what brings religions and races together.” And in his little corner of Tennessee, Chris helped do just that.

[photos] Photography by Shanna Ghaznavi

[photos] The cemetery was in bad shape to begin with: overgrown headstones, worn-out markers, and no updated map of the graves.

[photos] Mr. Brooks, the caretaker, was the only one who knew how to identify all the graves. Chris made it his job to make sure Mr. Brooks’s memories were recorded. The information he gathered will eventually be available in a searchable database. He and his crew also cleaned up this cemetery—the oldest black cemetery in Shelby County, Tennessee.

[photos] Chris’s efforts not only helped to make the cemetery more beautiful but also preserved its rich history for future generations to enjoy.

Arianne B. Cope is on the Church magazines staff.