Zion Cemetery History
Zion Cemetery is the oldest African American cemetery in Memphis. The United Sons of Zion, an African-American fraternal organization, purchased the property on which the cemetery is located in 1873. Zion Cemetery was started in 1876 by Rev. Morris Henderson, the founding pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church. After Rev. Henderson's death, members of the Zion Association formed the Zion Cemetery Company and purchased the cemetery. Shares were passed to descendants of the owners through the years. In this 15 acre cemetery, there are more than 30,000 people buried.
The original organizers operated a thriving cemetery until the 1920's when most of them had died. Some heirs tried to continue maintaining the cemetery. By the mid-1930's, Memphis newspapers were reporting that African-American ministers were asking their congregations, as well as relatives of those buried at Zion, to help pay for the maintenance of the neglected cemetery. By the 1960's, the property was largely abandoned and overgrown. The number of owners had dwindled by 1972, with the last known shares in the hands of George Christian.
In 1979 the Rev. Isaiah Rowser, unaware that Christian owned the cemetery, began cleaning the property. He was involved with Divine Motivation Inc., a non-profit religious organization headquartered in Nashville. In his zeal to restore Zion, he bulldozed the southwest corner, destroying the tombstones there. Christian and his wife hired a lawyer and had Rev. Rowser's work stopped by court order.
The overgrown area created conditions for various illegal activities, including an automobile chop shop and a dumping ground. For many years, people driving down South Parkway had no idea that this was a historic area. Christian died in 1985 and his wife, Mrs. Eva Alcorn Christian, deeded the cemetery to the General Board of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. A member of Mt. Pisgah Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, she and her husband were related to CME ministers. In 1990 a non-profit organization was formed to concentrate on restoration.
In February 1990, Zion Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; the historical marker was dedicated in June of that year. The cemetery was incorporated as Zion Cemetery, Inc. on December 24, 1991.
Some Well-Known People Buried at Zion Cemetery
Reverend Morris Henderson was born in Virginia in 1802 and ordained a Baptist minister in Memphis in 1864. He founded Beale Street Baptist Church in 1865, began a school, and founded Zion Cemetery in 1876, but did not live to see the church building complete. A small man, he was a great leader, as Beale Street Baptist Church had 2,500 members with a debt-free property when he died on October 26, 1877.
Thomas Moss was a letter carrier who, with Calvin McDowell and William Stewart, established the People's Grocery. These men were murdered in 1892 and buried in Zion Cemetery. Moss and his wife were close friends of Ida B. Wells, who was godmother to the Moss' daughter. The murder of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart inspired Wells to begin her anti-lynching campaign.
Dr. Georgia Patton Washington was the first African American female medical doctor in Tennessee. Educated at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, she became a missionary in Liberia where she established a school in Monrovia. The first wife of David Whittier Washington, she and her two infant sons died in Africa.
T. F. (Thomas Frank) Cassels was born in 1843 in Kentucky and attended Oberlin College in Ohio. A practicing attorney in Memphis, he was appointed assistant attorney-general in 1878 and was the first African American lawyer admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of West Tennessee. He served as a Republican in the 42nd Tennessee General Assembly from 1881-1883 and, in 1888, was a Republican Presidential elector. A member of the Congregational Church, he died in 1903.
Charles and Julia Hooks supervised a Juvenile Detention Home. Charles Hooks, a truant officer, was killed by one of the wards, but Julia Hooks continued to help young people. She became an officer of the Juvenile Court and also was a teacher and principal in Memphis City Schools. Born in Kentucky in 1852, she was educated at Berea College. She was a noted musician, playing the piano and organ in churches and with musical groups. She taught music, and her students often performed at recitals at Beal Street Baptist Church, Zion Hall, and Church's Park and Auditorium. Her sons Henry and Robert Hooks established Hooks Brothers Photographers, and Dr. Benjamin Hooks is one of her grandchildren.
Philip M. Nicholson, born in Memphis in 1846, was a wealthy landowner. South Parkway East was the northern boundary of his 360-acre truck farm where he grew fancy produce such as asparagus, strawberries, and raspberries. He was the first African American to have a site at the old Beale Street Market, one of the main Memphis markets for fresh vegetables and fruit. He and his wife had a large family and were noted for their hospitality. The Nicholson home was on the site of Hamilton High School.