When Jennifer Schwent and I went to New Madrid to see if we could find the people who were in my 1967 Mississippi River baptism photos, we met a very nice and very helpful woman who told us some interesting stories about Pastor B.B. Gillespie. The march to the Mississippi started at his Church of God in Christ church. When I mentioned that I had heard that the church had burned down since my last visit, the helpful woman’s voice dropped and she said, “I wouldn’t go down there. It’s too dangerous.”
“Ma’am, Russell Street is only about three or four blocks long. I’ve walked it from end to end knocking on doors and chatting with people on their porches. I’ve been to church services there. No one has been anything but friendly and helpful.”
“Well, I wouldn’t feel safe down there,” she warned again.
As we cruised the length of Russell Street, we did get a long look from a gaggle of young men gathered on one street corner, but that’s to be expected when a strange van with Florida tags drives by gawking. We stopped in front of the ruins of the church, but it didn’t make a picture worth getting out of the car in the light rain..
East Side – Denhart Cemetery
Across the street, we noticed a fenced-in expanse of green grass with what appeared to be grave markers scattered around in it. “I’m not afraid to get out and take a closer look,” Jennifer volunteered.
“I like you, kid,” I said, opening the door.
Only about 15 graves identified
We wandered the cemetery wondering just how many people were buried in a space that large. The City of New Madrid website says that nine of the 114 cemeteries in New Madrid County are located in the city. The one we were visiting on Russell Street goes by two names: the East Side Cemetery and the Denhart Cemetery. According to a document on the website, only about 15 graves are marked and / or identified.
The Find A Grave website lists 123 interments, and only about 11% of them have been photographed.
Those must be the scary people
While there, we heard raucous laughter and talk coming from the street corner about a block and half away. “Those must be the people we’re supposed to be afraid of,” I said. “Let’s go meet them.”
We walked up the group of five or six men and a woman. Turning to one of the men, I said, “Your beard is about as gray as mine, so you might be able to help me.” I explained our mission, then went back to the van to bring back a stack of baptism photos.
You need to talk with my mother
A small crowd gathered to look at the pictures. From time to time, someone would come up with a name, but they were of older people, all of whom were long dead. “You need to talk with my mother,” the grayest beard said. “She’s 90 years old and knows everybody.”
“Are you going to be on this street corner if I come back in a few months?” I asked him. The answer was yes, so I guess we have a date for the fall.
And, that’s how Jennifer and I escaped death or worse on the mean streets of New Madrid.