Monday, November 05, 2012

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Back in September, I took C over to Elmwood Cemetery where he and some friends, having read The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby, were making a documentary on the Yellow Fever Epidemic for school. I stopped in the main office to get a map of the grounds and take my other three kids on a tour of Memphis’s past. I’d been there as a kid many times but it had been a while since my last visit. I was immediately impressed by the offices, the architecture, the old-world feel and the contemporary use for such a space. I asked a few questions of a staff member and later pitched Phillips Cottage as a Hidden Memphis story to my editor at The Commercial Appeal.

The idea was for a story, to run the Sunday before Halloween, not on Elmwood itself, which has deservedly received much press over the years, but on this one, 146-year-old, continuously used structure within the cemetery. She liked the idea, but didn’t think there would be enough for a whole feature and suggested finding something else to go along with it. My immediate thought was the Crystal Shrine Grotto in Memorial Park, the elaborate, cave-like shrine built in 1938 by Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez. It’s another place I visited as a kid.

Grave of cemetery founder Rev. Morris Henderson

As I sat around searching the internet from home, I came across this great story on Zion Christian Cemetery by Paulene Keller in the October issue of The Downtowner magazine. Surprisingly, I’d never heard of this cemetery on South Parkway founded by a group of former slaves in 1876. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.

I spent a morning interviewing Kim McCollum, the executive director of Elmwood, complete with tour of Phillips Cottage and the cemetery, then I drove over to Zion, not far away, and was struck by the stark difference. Elmwood is orderly in its own way, historically cited everywhere you turn and seems intent in its orderliness on preserving and educating. Zion, on the other hand, is overgrown, unwelcoming, mostly neglected and, well, sad. The headstones, where they still exist, are crumbling or leaning or have fallen over. They bear names and dates of death, but in many cases there are no dates of birth or, if anything, only a year. I walked the grounds, interested in the gravesite of Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, one of the first female African-American physicians. She died in 1900 at the age of 36 after giving birth to a son. She asked that a magnolia tree be planted to mark her grave and it towers now, surrounded by other markers, and its growth and size has knocked to the ground an ornate obelisk marking where she, two of her young children who died within their first years, and her mother, all lie. Looking back at my notes from that day, I wrote that “much of the 15-acres is unused” but that is a misconception as I later learned. While there are relatively few grave markers, there are nearly 40,000 buried there. Elmwood holds 75,000.

I visited Memorial Park that day as well and toured the Grotto, and I spoke later with Ken Hall and Rhodes professor Milton Moreland, both of whom have worked extensively on the Zion Community Project and were enormously helpful. As I began writing the story, it quickly became unwieldy. Our initial thoughts were wrong and it turns out there was enough for a feature on Phillips Cottage alone. There was more than enough for a feature on Zion, and all of these places deserve their own write up. I decided to focus on the Cottage and Washington’s magnolia, and to save the Grotto for another day. (During the time of the initial story pitch and near-publication there had been some upheaval at the CA and my longtime editor had, unfortunately, been one of those laid off. My new editor, understandably, had a full plate made even more so and this confusion is in no way her fault.)

 I sent in my 1,500-word story and had to leave town unexpectedly the next day for a family matter. I returned on a Saturday and the next day opened the newspaper to find a shortened, 600-word, single-source feature on Phillips Cottage alone (Hidden Memphis: Elmwood Cemetery's caretaker cottage endures as treasure-trove of history, Oct. 28, 2012). My editor was out of town so I couldn’t find out what happened until today. Turns out there were only photos of Elmwood to run with the story, so they went with that portion instead of both. Any issue with a story I’ve written has had to do with photos and never with the copy I’m hired to write.

But these things happen. I just hate it for Zion which deserves some recognition. The  40,000 souls there, many of them former slaves themselves, deserve their dignity. To learn more about the Zion Community Project, visit

Below is the version I wrote.

The Cottage and the Magnolia
There are 95 acres in the heart of Memphis, two disparate plots of land that are nevertheless equally important to the city, reverent to the families of those entombed there and meaningful to any who seek to understand how a city is built and nearly destroyed, who its staunchest defenders, outlaws, leaders and healers were, and how such information might be saved or lost over time. 
Elmwood Cemetery was founded in 1852 and has maintained Phillips Cottage on its grounds as a memorial to its history, and the history of Memphis, for nearly that long. Zion Cemetery was founded in 1876 and has deteriorated over time through neglect, lost records and a lack of attention, its greatest monument now a towering magnolia tree planted at the grave of a forgotten, though remarkable, woman.

Phillips Cottage - Elmwood

A picture tells a thousand words, and the black-and-white images decorating the interior of Phillips Cottage in Elmwood Cemetery are no exception. But the plaster walls of the cottage have more stories to tell than just those captured in the earliest days of photography; stories of grieving loved ones remembering their dead, of a fever that spread and threatened to eradicate the population of Memphis, of generals, mayors, and the men and women whose final journey, whether on horse-drawn carriage or by automobile, passed by its front door.

Phillips Cottage was built as a one-room structure for Samuel Phillips, the cemetery’s second superintendent, in 1866, 14 years after the founding of the cemetery, as a place to conduct the business of overseeing funeral arrangements and tending to the grounds. Despite its utilitarian use, the cottage was designed in the ornate Victorian Gothic Carpenter style, popular at the time with its gingerbread trim and church-like windows. A steeple-shaped finial decorates the northern peak of the original standing seam metal roof.

Phillips Cottage has been used consistently since its construction, but is much more than mere office space today. It is a living, working museum with records and artifacts dating back to the 19th Century. The small staff welcomes the public to peruse and take a trip back to that Victorian era when the cemetery itself was outside the city limits and only the first of its 75,000 bodies were interred. “We are a repository of historical information,” said Kimberly McCollum, executive director of Elmwood. “We have lot books that go back to the founding of the cemetery, we have an amazing collection of archives. Anybody is welcome to come inside the cottage and look at it. In fact, we encourage people to.”

In those first years there were two entrances to the cemetery – one at the south end and the second, the only entrance still used today, at the north end of the 80 acres just off of Dudley St., is where Phillips Cottage stands.

Circa 1900, a second room and a walk-in vault were added to the existing cottage, as was a full-length front porch, altering the shape of the original gothic-style windows along the front. The added room is now an office and communal space with worktable, furnishings and floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with volumes on Memphis history for use by genealogists and researchers. The vault, brick-lined and left open to the public, holds old city directories, more photographs and a small gift shop.

In 1998, more space for offices and an archival-grade vault to the east was added. “We are interested in historic preservation and keeping everything with the same feel, and Jack Tucker was very specific that he wanted to honor that tradition,” McCollum said. To that end, the late architect Jack Tucker kept strictly to the design and style of the original cottage so that no matter where a visitor goes, the woodwork and sense of the old is seamless.

Above the 1900-era vault, attached to the roof and hung from scaffolding, is a bell that was used to call the students to class at the State Female College on McLemore, donated in 1885 after the school’s closure. That bell has rung for every funeral procession that has passed over the narrow entrance bridge for the past 127 years.

Inside, one will find the cottage’s cat, Howard, with its half-tail, walking among a hall tree once belonging to Robert Church, landowner and Memphis’s first black millionaire, donated by his family in 1983; a desk that once belonged to Alfred Jefferson Vaughan Jr., confederate general and Shelby County criminal court clerk in the late-1800s; and a refurbished sofa once owned by Mayor E.H. Crump.

“I think that I might have one of the most beautiful offices in Memphis,” McCollum said. “I am very fortunate to be surrounded by this beauty, and this history.”

Washington’s Magnolia - Zion

Just over two miles from Phillips Cottage and Elmwood, on So. Parkway East, there is no ornamental bridge leading to ample parking. There is no parking at all to speak of. Arching from stone feet, a metal, paint-flecked sign above the rutted entryway reads: Zion Christian Cemetery. A nearby historical marker denotes its importance as having been founded in 1876 by a group of former slaves known as the United Sons of Zion Association, as “ … a respectable burial site for African-Americans.”

For decades, the private cemetery, inherited by descendants of the founders and eventually given over years later to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, has languished in disrepair and neglect, at the mercy of the elements, vagrants and crime in the neighborhood. At one time, though, “it was by far the most active African-American cemetery in Memphis during the postbellum period, the period of Reconstruction and so forth,” said Milton Moreland, Chair of the Archaeology Program and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

In recent years, a group of individuals and organizations, including Rhodes, has begun the Zion Cemetery Project, leading tour groups and volunteer clean-ups to restore the cemetery itself and to instill pride in the surrounding neighborhood. “If we can revive that cemetery as a major tourist destination, then that helps the community,” Moreland said. “The success of Zion will also be the success of the South Parkway and South Memphis community along with it.”

“The first day I stepped foot in there in 1999, the brush and bushes were six or seven feet tall all the way up to the fence at the road,” said Ken Hall, who, as executive director for the volunteer organization HandsOn Memphis at the time, was contacted by neighbors to the cemetery tired of the rodents and crime the lot harbored. “We’ve gone in foot by foot, yard by yard, with machetes, axes, hoes and knocked that back.”

On a recent crisp, fall day when the leaves were turning from green to gold, and beginning to cover the plots, a crew worked to clear weeds and brambles, to tend to the resting place of those who tended to others while alive. The most notable detail in the cemetery, other than the headless angel leaning over the grave of Rev. Morris Henderson, one of the founders, and the myriad other toppled stones, is the lack of exact birthdates. In some cases there are only birth years given to further infuse the facts with uncertainty, but in most cases, there is only a date of death.

Dr. Washington's magnolia
A ledger full of those buried there, as well as the records of T.H. Hayes Funeral Home, closed in 2010, but which conducted some 5,000 funerals at Zion, have been obtained and scanned by Rhodes College. The ledgers can be viewed at, a site built and maintained by the school.

It is difficult to believe there are upwards of 40,000 buried underfoot as you walk among the 1,000 or so markers still standing. The last burial in Zion Cemetery was in the late 1960s, Hall said, though most of the plots were filled by the 1920s.

The scattershot and weather-worn headstones are monuments to history and, among the sweet gum trees, oaks and vine-choked maples, on a rise midway within the cemetery, soars a stately magnolia. It’s not a man-made, chiseled monument yet it marks the resting place of Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, born in 1864 and died in 1900, who was one of the first female African-American physicians. “She’s talked about extensively in Ida B. Wells’s Memphis Diary,” said Moreland. “In her day, she was quite an active person, missionary and practicing doctor.” Washington asked that a tree be planted at her grave and now, in the shade of those waxy leaves, her official obelisk lies on its side, still readable, yet marking little.

While Elmwood has been a resting place for well-maintained and detailed records since its beginning, Zion is having to play catch up to cobble its history together. Any cemetery, first and foremost, should be a dignified place for those laid to rest there, a place where family can visit to remember and pay homage, but it also acts as a city’s memory where the names and dates act as plot points on the timeline of our people’s history.

“You kind of forget what was happening in the 1880s or 1890s unless we can memorialize them in one way or another,” Moreland said. “Cemeteries really are part of a living community, and when you have a vibrant cemetery, you actually have a vibrant living community.”

For more information on these cemeteries, Phillips Cottage or Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, visit and

All photos by the author