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Zion Cemetery Project: Helping to Keep History Alive

Publication Date: 2/7/2011

For the past seven years, Dr. Milton Moreland, chair of the archaeology program at Rhodes, has been involved with the Zion Cemetery Project, working to restore the historic Zion Cemetery in South Memphis. The cemetery, founded in 1876, is the oldest African American cemetery in Memphis. Moreland, who serves on the Zion Cemetery Project Board, has worked with volunteers from Rhodes and the greater Memphis community to clear away shrubbery and debris that had completely covered the area after decades of abandonment. Together, they have restored around five acres of the 17-acre plot.

“It is an ongoing restoration effort,” says Moreland. “Most of the cemetery is still in the struggle to get to the point where you can go in and actually visit the graves. We’re continuing to try to cut out the overgrown forest conditions.” 

Rhodes has been involved in both the physical restoration of the cemetery and in maintaining a website with a searchable database of over 22,000 names of people who are buried at Zion. Rhodes Student Associates in the archaeology program have worked with the Information Technology department to input this data, which Moreland says has been used by families all across the country doing genealogy research.

“As soon as word got out about the database, it was recognized as a valuable resource for connecting the whole community to their own history in a really personal way,” says Dr. Suzanne Bonefas, director for special projects at Rhodes.

In conjunction with the restoration efforts this semester, Moreland will be involving students from his Death and the Afterlife class in different aspects of the project. Some students will be tracing the history of people who are buried there and also coordinating volunteer groups. Others will be developing a history of how the cemetery went from being the most prominent burial site in Memphis to what Moreland calls a “forgotten forest.”

Dr. Russell Wigginton, vice president for college relations at Rhodes, also serves on the board at Zion and recently helped coordinate the visit of a volunteer group from New York that came to work at and study the site. “For most people, there is a degree of reverence when they are looking at a tombstone,” says Wigginton. “I actually believe that for most students, the opportunity to have out of the classroom exposure to what they’ve been talking about and reading about makes things matter to them on another level.”

Last November, Rhodes hosted a fundraising dinner for the project where Congressman Steve Cohen and others spoke to over 200 guests. Along with raising money for the project, Moreland says the event also raised awareness and interest in Zion. “It’s hard to imagine how a huge cemetery like that just passes from our memory,” says Moreland.  “It reminds us of the impermanence of things, but also of the need to keep history alive—otherwise, people will forget.”

(information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Lucy Kellison ’13)

Tags: Campus Life, Faculty, Service, Students

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