I want to tell you about an important landmark that is one of my favorite places in Memphis, Tennessee. Most people have never heard of it, and not many have ever been there. The Historic Raleigh Cemetery is in such disrepair that even standing across the street from it, it is hard to tell that it is a cemetery.
I was first introduced to the cemetery about ten years ago. Some friends and I were sharing ghost stories, and Joe, my fiancé, decided to drive us out there. It was dark and spooky, but I fell in love with it at once.
The Historic Raleigh Cemetery is a forgotten part of Memphis, and I want to tell you about its known history, some of the people buried there, the current state or condition of the cemetery, and finally, how this affects us.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have”. I’m going to try to show you the Raleigh Cemetery, and to tell you the kind of people Memphis is made up of.
The Raleigh Cemetery dates back to the 1820’s. It was originally a small graveyard operated by the Raleigh Cumberland Church, and after the church burned down, burials became more public. According to a deed agreement, in 1937 the site was turned over to the old town of Raleigh. When Raleigh was incorporated into Memphis in 1973, the site became city property. This has, however, been highly disputed due to incomplete land records.
Headstones still standing date back to at least the 1840’s. This date does not account for the countless headstones that have been destroyed over the years. There are Shelby’s buried here, believed to be relatives of Isaac Shelby, who our county was named for. The second mayor of Memphis, Isaac Rawlings, is buried here, as are yellow fever victims and probable former slaves. Other prominent names on headstones include Coleman, Laughlin, King, Burrow, Beal, and Taylor. Wilson Sanderlin, who once owned much of the land that became Raleigh, is buried here. There are also countless names of everyday people found in this cemetery. They, as much as anyone else, helped form the city we now live in.
In 1974, developer John B. Green, who was owner of at least part of the cemetery, allowed an extension of East Street to New Raleigh LaGrange, to cut into the site, and for the adjacent land to be developed.
In 1975, The Raleigh Cemetery was dedicated a historic site by the West Tennessee Historical Society. The historical marker outside the gate reads:
“Here are buried some members of the generation that settled Shelby County. The County Court had been formed less than five years when, in 1824, Raleigh was surveyed as the place to which courts would be moved because of its central location. Academies and churches were built. Until about 1840 it was one of the towns that might have become this region’s big city. Later it was widely known as a mineral spa.”
In 1986, The City of Memphis deeded the land the Raleigh Cemetery occupies to the Raleigh Heritage Foundation, a group that was headed by former state representative Tim Joyce. This group has since dissolved, and Joyce has personally confirmed his ownership of the site.
The Raleigh Cemetery occupies six acres of land, and is believed to have been larger before commercial development in the area.
Despite many promises to clean up and preserve this historic site, the cemetery has been largely neglected since at least the 1940’s. Disputes of land ownership have facilitated this, and no one has taken the responsibility for cleaning, maintaining, and preserving the cemetery. Many groups have helped with cleanup in the past, including the Raleigh Civic Club, the Raleigh Bartlett Jaycees, Civitan Club, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Old Raleigh Cemetery Association, and many others. Many individuals have donated their time to try to clean the cemetery, but the fences remain rusted and broken. Trees have grown around some of the headstones, weeds and brush hide some, and others have been broken or stolen. A huge ravine that was created by erosion caused by nearby development has swallowed many graves. There are caved in vaults, and many unmarked graves, some of which were probably illegally dug. Graves and caskets have been exposed by erosion on the south side of the cemetery.
On many occasions we have been unable to make it more than a few feet inside the gates due to the grass and weeds. Often even some of the tallest markers are hidden from view by the vegetation.
You may be asking yourself, “Why should I care about a cemetery? Why is this important?” Cemeteries are important for a number of reasons, and especially the Raleigh Cemetery since it is perhaps our county’s oldest cemetery.
Even in ancient times burial rites and locations were sacred and an important part of culture. The Egyptian pyramids perhaps best illustrate this, but worldwide we can find monuments and memorials to the dead. That is what the Raleigh cemetery is- a memorial to the pioneers of our city. It is a piece of our history. One day we will be nothing more than those buried in the Raleigh Cemetery. We will be reduced to a name, date, and perhaps an epitaph to be read by those who care to look. For this reason, we should respect and honor our dead, so that we will deserve the same treatment in the future. I will leave you with a quote, which perhaps best sums up the importance of this historic site to us. The inscription on the original headstone of Wilson Sanderlin read:
“Remember friends, as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so must you be
Therefore prepare to follow me.”