Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Saints of Autumn: Constance and her companions, the Martyrs of Memphis

This is not a pretty story, but it is a story of courage and faith, and is one of those times when the Church lived into the fullness of Christ's call to bring healing to those abandoned by the dominant society.

In 1878 Memphis was plagued by an outbreak of Yellow Fever. The city's leader's ordered an evacuation, and those who were able fled Memphis on every horse, cart and train they could find. Some 30,000 people ran for their lives.

Those left behind -- 20,000 people -- were mostly African American. They had no means to get out, and nowhere to go. They began succumbing to the Yellow Fever at a rate of 200 deaths a day. By the end of the epidemic, an estimated 5,000 people had died.

A group of Episcopal and Catholic nuns and priests stayed behind, rallied by Sister Constance at a cathedral girl's school. They tended to the sick and dying until they, too, succumbed to the plague.

Constance and her nuns are credited with saving thousands who survived. Constance and her companions have been ever-after known as "The Martyrs of Memphis." Today is their feast day in the Episcopal Church.

There is a monument and park dedicated to Constance and the Martyrs of Memphis along a bank of the Mississippi River in Memphis. It is located in an industrial part of town, on the edge of an historically African American neighborhood, and only a few blocks from the motel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated almost a century later. The park is located on the site of what was Fort Pickering in the Civil War.

Fort Pickering was soldiered by a black Union regiment, the 7th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. My great-great grandfather, The Rev. George W. Richardson, was the white chaplain to that regiment (all black regiments were required to have white officers), and he was posted with them at Fort Pickering in 1864-1865. He left at war's end, returning home to Minnesota, and then went to Texas where he founded a college for ex-slaves (Huston-Tillotson University in Austin).

Many of the black soldiers he served with mustered out of the Army and stayed in Memphis, rearing families and settling in the neighborhood that grew around the fort. These ex-soldiers and their families were doubtless among those who contracted Yellow Fever in the 1878 epidemic.

Finding Fort Pickering today is not easy. After the Civil War, the white citizens of Memphis dismantled Fort Pickering, stone by stone, in an effort to rid themselves of any memory that a black regiment had once been posted in their midst.

A few years ago, on a very windy day, I walked this hallowed ground where Fort Pickering had once stood. I tried to imagine the place as it must have been when my ancestor served there, but it was difficult to picture it as it once was. There was no marker showing it as the site of Fort Pickering; I needed a local historian-guide to show me the site.

Yet there was redemption in this: A monument to Constance and the Martyrs of Memphis is there at the place where Fort Pickering once stood. It seemed very right they are honored on this spot, and very right we remember them today.

The photos are from my pilgrimage to Memphis and Fort Pickering in April 2004, showing the monument and marker to the Martyrs of Memphis.

No comments: