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Elmwood Cemetery: A Microcosm of Memphis History

Story and photos
by Kathleen Walls

gates at elmwood cemetary

Often a historic cemetery reflects that city’s history. That is the case with beautiful Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Elmwood was founded in 1852. Elmwood’s executive director Kim Beaden and Amanda Zorn, Historian/Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator, showed me around the cemetery. It has the feel of a garden with beautiful southern magnolia, poplar tulip, and giant water oak trees. Elmwood is divided into sections including the Masonic Section, the Confederate Rest section, the Yellow Fever Section, African American Section, and others. Many of the tombstone sculptures resemble a museum.

Earliest Residents

Although the first burial was Mrs. R. B. Berry on July 15, 1853, Colonel John Smith is the only veteran of the American Revolution buried at Elmwood. Originally from Virginia, he was buried there in 1851, was disinterred twice, and buried in his present tomb in Elmwood two decades later. There are 14 soldiers from the War of 1812, along with later veterans from the Civil War, World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.

John Overton Grave

john overton's grave

John Overton III’s grave, dated 1943, connects to the city’s founding. His grandfather, John Overton, along with James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson founded Memphis. The latter Overton was a banker, business executive, member of the state house and senate, and one of the wealthiest men in the state of Tennessee. His elaborate tombstone showcases his wealth.

Confederate Rest

 During the Civil War, Tennessee was a very divided state. In 1860, Memphis had Tennessee’s largest cotton and slave markets and was a major Mississippi River port. At a naval battle in June 1862, Union vessels defeat eight Confederate ships and occupied the city for the rest of the war.

Some of the prominent Confederate generals buried at Elmwood are George Gordon, Alfred Jefferson Vaughan, Jr., and Gideon Pillow.

Kit Dalton, who was a former Confederate guerrilla fighter who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and after the war, was a member of Frank and Jesse James’s gang. Dalton at one time had a $50,000 bounty for his capture, dead or alive. He lived his later years until 1920 peacefully in Memphis and has a small monument marking his burial spot at Elmwood.

Many Union soldiers were originally buried across from the Confederate dead, but most were moved to the Memphis National Cemetery in 1868. Reportedly, two remain at Elmwood. One, William Jay Smith, was a Union General who later became prominent as a member of both state house and senate and later a member of the United States House of Representatives.

African American Section

church's grave

From the beginning, Elmwood was a burial ground for all races. There are African Americans buried here - both free and slave. As was the practice in the times, Elmwood was segregated.

When the Civil War began, there were about 3,000 enslaved people in Memphis. They were the main workers in the cotton industry and trade along the Mississippi River. A monument recognizes the more than 300 unnamed enslaved people buried in Elmwood from its beginning to the end of the Civli War.

One Black man proved his race could succeed even when the odds were against them. Robert Church was the first Black millionaire in Memphis and the entire South. He was born into slavery in 1839 and escaped during the Civil War. He worked at whatever jobs he could get in Memphis and saved up enough money to buy a saloon on Beale Street. During what was known as “the 1866 Memphis Massacre,” he was shot in his saloon and left for dead. Against the odds, he survived and became wealthy in real estate and banking. His bank, unlike most others, loaned money to Black citizens to buy a home.

He owned a 2,200-seat auditorium named Church Park, the only Black-owned auditorium in the country. His auditorium hosted dignitaries ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Booker T. Washington. W. C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues” was his band leader.

Chinese Section

chinese section of elmwood cemetery

There are 266 graves, marked and unmarked, of Chinese Americans here. In the early 1970s, during reconstruction, Chinese people came to the Memphis and the Mississippi Delta area to build the levees and the railroads. Many had migrated from the west, where they had worked on the transcontinental railroad.

No Man’s Land

no man;s land section in elmwood cemetery

The Yellow Fever section, also called No Man’s Land, is named because it does not have a true section name. It is populated by about 1500 burials of people who died in the yellow fever epidemics of 1873,1878, and 1879. During these outbreaks, Elmwood was doing over fifty burials a day. With the epidemic raging and labor shortages, many bodies were just piled together on the ground for days awaiting burial. Trenches in an area formerly reserved for paupers and unknowns now housed people of all economic status and religions.

Memphis Madam

memphis madam, emily sutton's grave

Like all cities, there was a bit of lawlessness in Memphis, but sometimes lawbreakers are not all bad. Emily Sutton, who operated under the name of Fannie Walker, was a Memphis madam. Before arriving in Memphis, it appears that Fannie was operating a “house of ill-fame” in Nashville, where she was fined $3 plus court costs in August 1869.

She apparently moved her business to Memphis. The Memphis Daily Appeal reported on Feb 22, 1870, that Fannie Walker was arrested for “keeping a house of ill-fame” and was fined a dollar. She was back before the Memphis court in April 1871 along with many other women of “ill-repute,” once again for operating a house of ill repute. When the fever epidemic struck in 1873, she transformed her “house of ill repute” into a field hospital. She caught Yellow Fever and died during the epidemic. Her tombstone shows that she left behind a good bit of money when she died.

Civil War History

shelby foote's grave

Shelby Foote, a novelist but also known for his authorship of The Civil War: A Narrative, a three-volume history of the American Civil War. He appeared in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary The Civil War in 1990.

Memphis Music History

wayne jackson grave

A stone with a man that looks like he’s playing a trumpet brings to mind Memphis’s long musical history. That’s a memorial to Wayne Jack, a soul and R&B musician. His tombstone recalls him playing the trumpet in The Mar-Keys, the house band at Stax Records and later as one of The Memphis Horns, which had been described as “the greatest soul horn section ever."

Civil Rights

The City of Memphis will always be remembered as home one of the blackest days in the Civil Rights Movement when Dr. Martin Luthor King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum. It will bring a tear to any feeling human who visits. Elmwood is the final resting place of two civil rights workers. Benjamin Hooks, who throughout a lifetime of fighting for equality, joined Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a pioneer in restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts, the first African American on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and executive director of the NAACP. In 1990, he and his family were targeted in a wave of bombings against civil rights leaders. Before his death in 2010, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award on November 5, 2007.

Another notable Civil Rights worker buried at Elmwood is Maxine Smith, know as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis. She served on the National Board of the NAACP and was the Executive Secretary of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, where she worked for the desegregation of everything in Memphis.

Other Monuments and Structures

Another notable monument at Elmwood Cemetery is one dedicated to the 19 children buried here who perished at the hands of a black-market adoption ring called The Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

“In memory of the 19 children who finally rest here unmarked if not unknown, and of all the hundreds who died under the cold, hard hand of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Their final resting place unknown. Their final peace a blessing. The hard lesson of their fate changed adoption procedure and law nationwide.”

phillips cottage at elmwood cemetery

The Phillips Cottage, which serves as the Visitor Center and office, is the only known example of Victorian Carpenter Gothic architecture in Memphis. It was built in 1866 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Lord’s Chapel offers a place for services and the many private family mausoleums and tombs will give insight into what makes Memphis the city it is today.


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