November 7, 2019
I am honored to be with you this evening as we celebrate and commemorate the important work that is being done to preserve Zion Christian Cemetery.
What an incredible project this is. In recent years, the fifteen acres of cemetery land has been almost completely cleared of overgrowth, an electronic database has been built documenting the more than 22,000 lives of those buried there, and the site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
This is an awe inspiring set of accomplishments and I am proud of the many students, faculty, and college leaders who have joined you in these achievements. I would particularly like to thank Dr. Milton Moreland and Dr. Russ Wigginton who led these efforts on behalf of Rhodes and in whose honor I accept this award. We value this work and we value this relationship. We look forward to many more years of partnership. Thank you for welcoming us into this work. We are grateful to stand among the other honorees.
Zion is an African American Christian Cemetery and I am a Jewish white woman. Hence, the obvious choice to speak to you this evening!
But as I thought about what I could possibly say to you this evening, I came across a point of connection that feels moving and important to me and that I hope conveys a sense of my awe at what the cemetery project represents.
In the Jewish tradition, the holy books of the bible are read over the course of a year with each congregation studying the same portion and following the same weekly calendar. This week, we read the Torah promise to Abram in Genesis 12. If Abram will “Lech lecha” (Go, go forth) G-d will bless him. G-d promises him that he will be the father of a nation through his wife Sarah—the father of a people and a homeland. At this point, both of these things seem unlikely. His wife Sarai is old and Abram is a nomad. As the story unfolds, Sarai become ‘Sarah’ and Abram becomes ‘Abraham’ which means ‘the father of a multitude of nations.’ But he isn’t yet the father of a nation. He leads his family as they wander, as they sojourn as strangers in someone else’s kingdom. He is never at home. He has no place on earth to call his own. He has a family but he isn’t the father of a people.
Two weeks from now, Jews will read about the first thread of fulfillment of the promise of nationhood. This is an important moment in Genesis 23 where Abraham purchases his very first parcel of land. You might imagine that the promised land comes first in the form of a palace or a farm or a well. But it doesn’t. It comes in the form of a gravesite. Abraham the wanderer has lost his beloved wife Sarah. He needs a place to bury her. A place that will mark her life and the values for which she lived. A place that her descendants can point to and say: “There. There is our ancestor. There is a part of history that is ours.”
Abraham purchases a cave and lays her there to rest. In doing so, he begins the slow transformation of a family into a tribe (the Israelites) and then into a people (The Jews).
Like the cave of Machpelah, the Zion Cemetery is more than a graveyard. In purchasing land in which to bury their dead, the cemetery’s founders proclaimed the holiness, dignity, and worth of their community. Some of the ancestors buried at Zion were forbidden to own property. Many of them were denied basic civil rights. All of them lived within a structurally racist society. Like Sarah, they may have lived as wanderers but they were buried as rightful dwellers.
The Zion project is an act of history—preserving evidence, creating archives, interpreting the factual record. But it is also an act of memory. And memory—more than land, more than a cave or a gravesite—is the way we make ourselves whole. For a people who have been homeless, memory work is a form of both resistance and justice.
Zion Cemetery restored speaks to us. It says “we will not forget.” It says, “we will not let others forget.” It says, “we will tell it to our children and our children’s children.” It says, “we are home.”
Tonight’s theme is “Still We Rise.” The Zion cemetery continues to rise in Memphis and in doing so it is a beacon to all who celebrate hope and freedom, to all who honor the strength and beauty of African Americans and the mighty home they have made in this land, to all who honor the very human links that bind us from generation to generation.
At Rhodes College, our mission calls for us “to graduate students with a life-long passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.” We can’t fully realize that vision by staying inside our classrooms or laboratories. A Rhodes education takes place on our campus, in the city of Memphis and across the globe. I am grateful to you as Memphians for the welcome you give our students and the many ways you contribute to their learning. At Rhodes, we measure our success not by what a Rhodes education does for our students but for what it allows them to do for the world.
That is how we rise.