Reclaiming the Sons of Zion graveyard

MEMPHIS, TN 

The Zion Cemetery of Memphis, TN has been in a state of disrepair for many decades – the grave markers in most cases inaccessible thru a canopy of creepers.

ZionEThe cemetery is important because it was the first African-American graveyard of the region, founded in the 1870’s by the “Sons of Zion”, who were former slaves. The property was in use until the 1970’s but quickly slid into disrepair shortly thereafter. In the 1980’s and 1990’s there were rumors of the gravestones being used as “chop shop” jack props for car thieves and as a result – this was a location that the general public would dare not venture.

ZionAAALocal activist Ken Hall of Volunteer Mid-South has been working with local volunteers to correct that for the past nine years.Currently, approximately eighty percent of the property is still covered by overgrown brush, weeds, and thorn bushes – but Mr. Hall is optimistic that one day this will change.

In the accompanying photographs, he supervises the work of 100 local teens from the non-profit Bridge Builders comprised of 50% white and 50% African-ZionGAmerican youth. Armed with machetes, mowers, and clippers, they go in search of the gravestones of the Sons of Zion by re-claiming the land for the future generations of those buried here.

Video by Neal Moore.  Photos by Ken Hall.

Livin’ the Blues with James “Super Chikan” Johnson

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

James “Super Chikan” Johnson’s chicken shack, out back behind his family’s Clarksdale home, is a work in progress. He’s currently expanding it out to accommodate his art, guitars, and inner sanctuary that he calls home.

Blues enthusiasts from all over the world celebrate Super Chikan’s unique, old school take on the blues – including a wide variety of homemade guitars that he both plays and sells. Here you’ll find the diddley-bow hybrid he calls a “bow-jo”, his rooster guitar, ax guitar, 38 calliber gun guitar, and ceiling fan guitar. A simple cigar box guitar will set you back around $3,800, while a diddley-bow bow-jo will run you closer to $5K. And they sell.

Chikan
Super Chikan in his Chicken Shack, Clarksdale, MS

But before his success, Mr. Johnson “lived the blues” in a different context – as Wikipedia explains, “moving from town to town [as a child] in the Mississippi Delta and working on his family’s farms.” From a sharecropping existence, picking cotton, to working the John Deere tractors that replaced the sharecropper, to driving truck throughout Arkansas and Tennessee, Mr. Johnson made a conscious decision to stay in the South and to do it with a smile.

Which life lessons led him back to his early childhood memories, back onto the front porch where he’d listen to the likes of blues legends Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, among others, who would stop by to visit his grandfather, to talk shop, play their music, and in so doing, to quite literally live the blues.

Embracing the Economic Blues

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

When you walk the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can still hear the voice of blues legend Robert Johnson – ringing from the shop windows as well as from passing cars.  There’s a revival going on here and it’s all about the blues – about a respect for the first generation bluesmen who are honored and revered.

But it’s not just about a cultural renaissance.  The blues pays, a concept that folks from all walks of life have begun to latch on to.

Economic Blues

Politics Meets the Blues with Mississippi’s Bill Luckett

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

Here at Ground Zero Blues Club of Clarkdale, Mississippi, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial contender, Bill Luckett.  In this complete and uncut interview, Mr. Luckett, who co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club with Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, answered a barrage of questions ranging from the cultural renaissance of the blues to his candidacy for governor.

Luckett

A Safe Place in the City of Good Abode

MEMPHIS, TN

I had the pleasure to visit the “Youth Villages” Poplar Group Home of Memphis, TN, which is designated as a “safe place” for the abused, runaway, and homeless children of the area. Here the boys of the house are carving pumpkins and preparing their first pumpkin roasted seeds. Thanks to the outpouring of volunteers from the local area, via Volunteer Mid-South.

Runaway

In Her Shoes: Surviving Domestic Violence

CAIRO, ILLINOIS

Upon entering the Cairo Women’s Shelter, in Cairo, Southernmost Illinois, one is immediately greeted with the smile of a lifetime.

Meet Jeannine Woods, Executive Director of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, who along with her rather gregarious staff, have made it their life passion to bring a sense of normalcy to the many battered women and children who, on a daily basis, buzz their way into the shelter. From that smile comes the prospect of a bona fide safe haven where the woman or often mother can begin to consider the prospect of – quite possibly for the very first time in their lives – thinking about themselves. Which can lead to positive goals.

When asked about the importance of goals, Natasha, mother of seven and resident of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, explained, “I pray every day for strength to keep me to do this – to give me the power to keep going … to keep it in me that I am here and I’ve got to protect my kids and that when I leave here, that it’s still going to remain the same.”

Buzzing with activity, Jeannine and myself, looking for a place to conduct the interview, decided it best to step outside, seeing as how it was such a picture-perfect day. Which brought us in view of the projects of Cairo – a place that Jeanne explained was safer than one might think.

“See that mother, just down the road, that one with a baby on her hip and another holding her hand?” Looking just down the road from where we sat, I could see it, the silhouette of the trio moving positive in the other direction, along the lane between the government formed homes. “She’s not scared,” explained Jeannine. “She’s walking with confidence, and she’s walking with pride.”

In her shoes

Above and beyond the shelter, Jeannine wanted me to see and experience the brighter side of Cairo – a town which has been on the decline now for several decades – often stereotyped by the media in a rather negative light. In so doing, she asked me “not [to relate] the plight of Cairo, but the positive of Cairo.” Which, thanks to a number of community and political leaders quite busily making a difference, turned out to be an easy task.

“The people who choose to stay [in Cairo] represent [a] picture of hope for our community. They don’t represent the dwindling and dire circumstances… they stay because they have hope for their community… because there is a glimmer of hope here.”

A positive spin on hope, to be sure, which in turn plays directly back into the shelter’s mantra of inner strength – a strength which helps the women of the Cairo Women’s Shelter find the wherewithal to move themselves forward.

“When she takes her shoes and plants them in her new life,” explained Jeanne, “she’s [facing the prospect] of a new life … [of a] hope for her children.”

The Great Migration of Cairo, Illinois

CAIRO, ILLINOIS

The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.

CAIROaMy muse for this story was singer/songwriter Stace England, who dedicated an entire album to the living legacy of Cairo, titled Greetings from Cairo, Illinois. After shooting a rather haunting rendition of “The North Starts in Cairo, Illinois”, Mr. England explained, “When [blacks] were traveling by bus from the South they were separated by a curtain from the white riders … They could take that curtain down in Cairo, because the North started here. So you can imagine people who had lived with segregation their entire lives getting into the land of opportunity [which would have been] a very dramatic thing.”

Yet the land of opportunity, or as Mr. Twain put it, “the promised land,” was not exactly full of promise for all citizens.

My first day in town, Preston Ewing, the City Treasurer and unofficial town historian, explained that before I could attempt to capture a glimpse of Cairo’s future, I’d “most certainly need to understand the past.” Mr. Ewing understands the past of this city as few others do, having served as the president of the local NAACP in the late 1960’s, a time in which Cairo gained national attention as a flashpoint of activity during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

CAIROhCairo, Illinois is geographically important due to its location as the very first city of the North, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers along the Mason- Dixie Line, a place locals refer to as “the epicenter of the country.” As such, Cairo was referred to as “the promised land” by runaway slaves, headed north. “If you made it to Cairo and crossed the Ohio River, then you could consider yourself to be on somewhat free territory,” explained Bishop Paul Jones, who serves as Alexander County’s Circuit Clerk at the local Courthouse.

Bishop Jones is the first African American to hold the title of Alexander County Circuit Clerk, while Mayor Judson Childs is the first African American to hold the title of Mayor in the City of Cairo. An achievement for the African American community, on a local level, considering the town has been around for the past 150 years.

In the past, there have been two, rather well publicized communities in the town of Cairo – white and black. And yet, as Reverend Ronnie Woods, affectionately known by the town as “Coach”, (a title in reference to his twenty plus years as Cairo High School football coach) is quick to point out, these once separate communities are now coming together.

CAIRObTake a look around, as Mayor Childs would say, “with your eyes and your ears” and one will find that folks here have moved past their racial differences. In only a few short days in town, I was able to witness this firsthand, from the positive energy of the teachers of the Jr. and Sr. High School, to a “20/20 Vision” program embraced by local entrepreneurs and city officials alike, to a number of patrons at the town’s local hangout, the Nu Diner, who confided that Cairo is, symbolically hand in hand, simply moving forward.

Music & Lyrics used with permission by Stace England. Copyright Pearlie Mae Music 2005. All Rights Reserved.