By Hope Harrington Oakes
Friendship Cemetery has long been an important landmark in the city of Columbus since it was founded on a bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River in 1849. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, it now encompasses over 65 acres and contains approximately 16,000 graves. Those who found permanent rest in Friendship Cemetery include veterans of almost every American war, various state and local politicians, and the founding fathers and mothers of Columbus and the surrounding area. It is also known as the birthplace of Memorial Day, thanks to some local ladies who put the past behind them and decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers. For 23 year, since 1991, history students at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science on the MUW campus have presented Tales from the Crypt, a dramatization where history comes to life. Each spring during the Columbus Pilgrimage, visitors tour the cemetery by candlelight and stop by tombstones to hear monologues from authentically costumed students standing by graves of those whose lives the re-create. These performances are the results of an intensive year-long research effort by the students. This year, 49 11th grade US History students at MSMS are participating in research and development of the project.
The project has been a successful partnership between MSMS, the Columbus-Lowndes County Library, and the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation (formerly the Columbus Historic Foundation). It has received national and regional awards while also gaining recognition through imitation and publicity throughout the country. The original concept was conceived by founding MSMS faculty member, Mississippi Master Teacher, and long-time Columbus resident Carl Butler. For the past 13 years, the program has been under the guidance of MSMS History teacher, Chuck Yarborough, Mississippi’s 2008 History Teacher of the Year and 2010 inductee in to the Mississippi Hall of Master Teachers.
Yarborough, a native of Pass Christian on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is married to Leigh, the new director of Sylvan Learning Center in Columbus. Together, they are the parents to daughters India (an incoming MSMS student) and Laurel, and son, Sam. He received his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University, and his Master’s degree at Ole Miss. When asked if it was hard or intimidating to take over the award-winning program, he replied, “No, I benefited from the wisdom, guidance and experiences of Mr. Butler, which, by the way, also gave me the confidence to make changes to the program over the years, which I feel have served to strengthen what was already a great program”. His favorite part is witnessing the growth of his students as researchers, writers, performers, and young people with a great community service ethic. His advice to budding history buffs is “If you don’t smile once in a while when researching, you’re not doing it right!”
Tales from the Crypt involves a lengthy process that takes months to prepare. Once the students begin classes in the fall, Yarborough introduces them to the project and a brief overview of Columbus history. Then, each student selects the name of a person buried in Friendship Cemetery (not previously researched) who died in the nineteenth or early twentieth century (prior to 1930). An intensive process involving extensive research, character development, scripting, and auditions nine students being selected based upon dramatic performance potential and historical accuracy. Students who are not selected to perform their character continue to participate in the project as production team members. These students also learn parts as tour guides who offer narration for the cemetery and the performances during evening tours. Annually, between two and three thousand visitors tour Friendship Cemetery and experience the performances! As a community service project, admission is kept low so entire families can afford to come enjoy the show – only $5 for adults with a discounted price for students. The affordable admission covers performance costs and usually generates a small profit. Half of the Profits from the project are donated to projects selected by the students. Past charitable recipients include: the Mississippi Red Cross for Disaster Relief, Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Mississippi Edition, the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, and Palmer Home for Children. They have also provided funds to purchase historic markers at the Richard Wright home in Natchez and the downtown Jewish Business Complex in Port Gibson. Locally, they purchased a slave record manual and other resources for the Columbus/Lowndes County Archives.
Yarborough fully enjoys his role in helping the past come alive. Next year, daughter India will be one of the students who must learn the process. When asked if he was looking forward to teaching one of his own children, he replied “We are happy that India will be attending MSMS next year. She has been well prepared for MSMS by our Columbus public schools, and we are excited for her to take her next steps academically.” It is said that the Egyptians believed that when you said a person’s name aloud, you were granting that person immortality. William Faulkner wrote that “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Chuck Yarborough is making sure of it, one student at a time.