This the beautiful gate and one-lane bridge that welcomes visitors into the cemetery. Its Gothic style architecture helps to define the grandeur of the cemetery awaiting you.

The Divide After Death

Elmwood Cemetery is one of the oldest non-profits in Tennessee. In 1852, five men each contributed approximately five-hundred dollars each to buy 40 acres of land to start a cemetery. Later it was upgraded to 80 acres following the Civil War. Due to its age, the cemetery is home to a lot of history. It has existed through slavery, war, and many cultural changes in its Memphis setting. As the world around Elmwood has changed, we still see remnants of good and bad history in Memphis. By this I mean that class and race are still prevalent when you look around the beautiful landscapes. Although Elmwood doesn’t specifically classify their cemetery as being “segregated”, we can see otherwise. Here are some pictures I took to portray a intersecting ideas of racism and classism after death.

The beautiful architecture for this vault is what makes the Wessendorf family vault stand out in Elmwood. Many websites commend the builder of the vault but they don’t have any background on the actual family. We are left to assume that they come from money because lower class families could barely afford plots, let alone whole vaults.
This is the vault of Robert Reed Church’s family. Church (1839–1912) was the first African American millionaire in the South. He started the first black owned bank in Memphis which gave credit to African Americans so they could buy homes and businesses- something unseen during the Civil War.
This is the inscription on Church’s vault which tell the successes of his life and how he will continue to be “head of the party in Tennessee” even after death. This is an example of what separates the classes even after death. Even someone influential in the community who came from a poor family would not be able to get an inscription like this to tell about their successes.
This is the grave site of another influential African American man on the Memphis community. His name was George Washington Lee (1894–1976) but was referred to as Lieutenant Lee of Beale Street. After facing oppression his entire life, Lee took it upon himself to maintain as much African American culture he could in a southern city like Memphis.
This is the memorial dedicated to the Confederate soldiers buried in Elmwood. People seem to forget that the Confederate soldiers were the ones fighting to maintain slavery and continue to oppress African American citizens.
This is the monument that Elmwood houses to remember the Confederate soldiers. Not only do they have the plaque which goes into great detail about the soldiers buried, they also got this towering monument. I understand their reasoning to commend these men who fought for their beliefs, but how do they remember all of the African American slaves who died without any family?
This plaque is the only thing in Elmwood that addresses the slaves of Memphis who were buried in unmarked graves because they were seen as merely property rather than human beings. This community of African Americans continued to be oppressed after death by not being given proper burials to commend them for their years of pain and suffering.
This is just a close up of the inscription on the slave monument. I wanted to make sure you could read it in order to compare it to the plaque dedicated to the Confederate soldiers.
Although this doesn’t have anything to do with racism, it does have to do with classism. The people buried in these unmarked graves were mainly from impoverish families of Memphis because that is where the yellow fever epidemic was mainly concentrated. They ended up having to do mass burials to keep up with the number of deaths.

In other parts of the cemetery, we see there are areas centered around one orientation or ethnicity. Here, we see a strong sample of Chinese populations.
This is just another picture taken in the same general area as the last to get a clearer idea into how large of an area they cover.
Another “area” of the cemetery housed the grave sites of those of Jewish decent. Here is one grave with the Star of David to symbolize that.
This is the grave of Gov. Isham Green Harris (1818–1897) who served as the Tennessee governor in 1857, 1859, and 1861 until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1877. He is best recognized for his efforts to move Tennessee into the Confederacy during the Civil War. Better yet, he was elected by Tennessee residents for his work that went against the anti-slavery activists of the North!
The story of Wade Bolton (1812–1869) is a long one. He was part of the largest slave/cotton trading association in the South. He left money in his will so that his family could make a “life-like” statue of him to accompany his grave. The family members chose to portray him in an uglier light with an unbuttoned shirt, untied shoe, cane, and crossed fingers.
Known for his time as a Confederate General in the Civil War, George Gordon (1836–1911) was also one of the original members of the KKK during his time studying law in Pulaski, TN. First “Grand Dragon” of the Klan in TN.
Thomas Battle Turley (1845–1910) was another Confederate soldier and U.S. Senator. After the death of Isham Harris, he was elected to become Tennessee’s next governor. He was also a well known lawyer who founded the Harris, Mckissick, & Turley firm. Although his grave stone isn’t elaborate, its bigger than your average headstone which signifies his importance.
These Gothic style statues of angels and Jesus began appearing on graves in the Victorian era when upper class families felt that they needed something extravagant to remembered by. The Victorian era was all about the appearance of having money so this is how they showed the gap between lower/middle class and the elites.
See any large statues or mausoleums? Nope! As you can see in the far back of the picture, this area of the cemetery sits directly next to a sand pit and a not so appealing wire fence. This area was more than likely some of the cheapest plots because they sit on the outskirts of the cemetery. This can also describe how undesirable areas in a city like Memphis typically get centered around cemeteries because its seen as undesirable real estate.
I wanted to get a clear picture of the middle class citizens that also live here in Elmwood. We can tell that they are middle class because the grave stones are an average size and there’s no elaborate/ expensive detail added to show wealth compared to the others I’ve shown.
On the tour, they told us that this was the tallest statue in Elmwood. I thought it was excellent placement seeing as it completely overpowers all of the small grave stones around it. I saw this as a metaphor for the upper class always oppressing the lower with the statue representing the elite.
You often see these kinds of headstones which I would like to associate with the lower class because it is definitely the cheapest grave marker. We can also see the materials it was made out of were cheaper because of the erosion. Just compare these stones to the monuments- we place importance of the person on their graves after death.
If there was one thing in Elmwood that struck me the hardest, it would be this road sign. This “Road of Honor” runs along the grave sites of the Confederate soldiers. I think it is improper and extremely condescending to label these soldiers with more honor than the slaves who worked their entire lives in hope of one day being free. Talk about honor.
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