Zion Community Project, Inc.
- Created in 2005 by a group of individuals and organizations who had been working together on a volunteer basis to clean up and restore Zion Cemetery.
- Mission: To restore Zion Cemetery and in the process to create a sense of pride in neighborhoods surrounding Zion Cemetery, as well as respect for the past and long-lasting working relationships among various communities in and beyond Memphis.
- Project Goals:
1) To further improve and maintain the appearance of the front of Zion Cemetery; 2) To increase public knowledge about the cemetery and awareness of the problems that currently exist there; 3) To increase the number of volunteers from the surrounding neighborhoods who participate in or donate to the work going on in the cemetery; 4) To sustain involvement and commitment among volunteers; 5) To engender a greater public understanding of the significance of local history; 6) To promote a greater sense of pride in the neighboring and greater Memphis communities; 7) The long-term goal is, of course, the complete restoration and maintenance of the cemetery.
History of the Project
Founded in 1876 by a group of freed slaves calling themselves the Sons of Zion, this cemetery on South Parkway in Memphis was the African American community's major cemetery for approximately 40 years. Zion Cemetery is the oldest African American cemetery in Memphis. The public library has compiled a listing of all persons buried in the cemetery from 1896 onwards. There are likely over 30,000 people buried there on 15 acres. The deceased include, among other notables, Georgia Patton Washington, the first black female physician in Tennessee; Calvin McDowell, William Stewart and Thomas Moss, the friends of Ida B. Wells whose 1892 triple lynching inspired her national anti-lynching campaign; Thomas Cassels, a lawyer who served in the Tennessee General Assembly; Benjamin Hooks' grandfather, Charles; and musician W. C. Handy's infant daughter.
Without the ongoing infrastructure of a church or other organization, the cemetery thrived only as long as the original organizers were able to operate it. By the 1920s most of the original owners of the cemetery had died. Some heirs stepped in to help, but sporadic leadership and other difficulties led to a sharp decline in cemetery maintenance. By the 1960s the property was largely abandoned. By the 1970s and 1980s, nature re-claimed the area with saplings, vines, scrub brush, leaves and limbs.
The effect was an ever deepening blanket over the tombstones, hiding many for decades to come. The neglect also opened the cemetery to illegal activities. The dark, secluded, wilderness became a chop shop for stolen cars, a favored dumping ground for shingles and other debris, a welcoming site for drug traffic and gang activity, and a target for vandals who stole or otherwise damaged tombstones. For most of the late 20th century, few people who drove down South Parkway knew that a very significant part of Memphis's past lay beneath this forest within the city.
In the mid-1980s, an heir of the original founders, now old herself, asked the CME denomination to accept the problem property and keep it up as best they could. Though they lacked monetary resources to take on the monumental task of restoring this once proud cemetery, the denomination nonetheless agreed to accept the property. By 1990 a non-profit organization was formed to focus on the restoration. Its board first raised money to build a fence enclosing the cemetery (to keep out criminal activity) and then commissioned a complete restoration plan from a landscape architect. The cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1990. With considerable effort funds were raised and the fence was built. Information on what happened next is sketchy, but the effort seems to have exhausted the board, which never met after 1992.
In 1999 the Mayor's Citizens Service Center, hearing many concerns from cemetery neighbors about the property, contacted Hands on Memphis about enlisting volunteers to clean it up. Hands on Memphis began bi-annual clean ups with a limited quantity of hand tools. In 2002 a connection made between Hands on Memphis and the CME denominational headquarters facilitated dialogue on how best to organize regular clean up activities. Since that time monthly efforts have been mounted to keep the very tall grass cut down and begin to move back the scrub brush and tree line to uncover the grave markers.
In February 2005, Zion Community Project, Inc. was created by a group of individuals and organizations who had been working together on a volunteer basis to clean up and restore the historically very significant Zion Cemetery. In restoring the currently derelict property, our mission is to create a sense of pride in the neighborhoods surrounding the cemetery, as well as respect for the past and long-lasting, working relationships among various communities in and beyond Memphis.
Since we began work, we have cleared approximately five acres (out of a total of 15) of trash, brush, vines, debris, trees (both new growth and fallen) and, importantly, maintained that clearing. While a complete restoration will require many years, our goals for the next year include beautification of the front of the cemetery (along S. Parkway) in order to present a positive image to the public. We are also planning a major campaign to get neighborhood residents as well as various Memphis organizations (churches, schools, colleges, etc.) involved in and committed to this project.
Video of Zion Cemetery
Location of Zion Cemetery
You can click into this map to zoom in or out, as well as view satellite imagery of Zion Cemetery. Simply click the map controls in the map or use your mouse to move it around.
Opportunities for Involvement
This project has myriad opportunities for involvement. Beyond the basic clearing, community groups can bring their own expertise to Zion: the planting of flowerbeds, landscaping, or mowing and maintenance. Many African Americans in Memphis undoubtedly have relatives in Zion, so this is also an opportunity for genealogical research. We plan to complete a searchable "map" of the cemetery so that descendants can find the graves of their relatives.
Some of Our Many Contributors to the Project
- The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, a partnership unit of the National Park Service that is administered by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University
- CME Church & General Board of Personnel Services
- Community Foundation of Greater Memphis
- Hands on Memphis
- Heritage Tours
- Sheffield High School
- Idlewild Presbyterian Church
- Mount Olive CME Church
- Collins Chapel
- Fellowship Bible Church
- Rhodes College
- LeMoyne-Owen College
- University of Tennessee medical students
- Kent State University in Ohio
- Stetson University in Florida
- Memphis Police Department
- Memphis Bar Association
- Memphis University School
- Boy Scouts/Eagle Scout candidates
Zion Community Project Board Members
Rev. Tyrone T. Davis, President
Rev. Roland Johnson, 1st Vice President
Dr. Russell Wigginton, 2nd Vice President
Dr. Milton Moreland, Secretary
Janet Olson, Assistant Secretary
Claudette N. Branch, Treasurer
Clifford Stockton, Corporate/Development
Earlice Taylor, Volunteer/Outreach
Thomas Jones, Historical
Rev. Tyrone Davis
Zion Community Project, Inc.
P.O. Box 74
Memphis, TN 38101-0074
Dr. Milton Moreland
Religious Studies Department
2000 North Parkway
Memphis, TN 38112