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New Life for Old Raleigh

Local historians are restoring the Old Raleigh Cemetery.

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A tombstone at Old Raleigh Cemetery
  • A tombstone at Old Raleigh Cemetery

Broken and half-buried headstones fill Memphis' historic Old Raleigh Cemetery. Many have been vandalized and stolen. The property has been neglected and abused for years, but Dale Schaefer, a local historian, aims to change that.

Schaefer, along with a couple of other dedicated volunteers, is investing his time and labor into repairing several dozen damaged headstones that remain scattered throughout the eight-acre burial ground, which is, according to Schaefer, among the oldest cemeteries in Shelby County.

"The entire cemetery is a fascinating historic relic of Shelby County history and, unfortunately, long abandoned, abused, and forgotten," Schaefer said.

The public will have a chance to view some of the repaired headstones during a tour of the site on Saturday, April 5th, at 1:30 p.m. Visitors will learn about the cemetery's legacy and hear the stories of some of the people buried there.

"I really would like for people to know that the place is here," Schaefer said. "That there are needs here. My vision and dream is that this becomes a park that's cared for — clean and safe — that people can come to. It's always going to be a cemetery, but this is a beautiful setting out here. And I'd like to see it have some walking trails and some benches, where people can come to have a nice place to sit and meditate."

Schaefer has been involved in an ongoing restoration of the cemetery since 2011. He's recovered 30 headstones and removed lots of weeds, trash, and underbrush. Ten or so of the headstones have been repaired and reset, though there are a few headstones damaged so badly, they're irreparable.

Many of those buried in Old Raleigh Cemetery were residents of Shelby County many decades before Raleigh was annexed into the city of Memphis. The earliest burial date in the cemetery is 1831.

Among those buried here is Isaac Rawlings, the second mayor of Memphis. Rawlings was also known for having a common-law marriage with one of his slaves.

"People stole half of the wrought iron that the grave was enclosed in," Schaefer said. "Rawlings' stone was badly broken. He was buried with his relatives in a broken enclosure. There are pieces all over in there. It's shattered. What I want to do is raise it onto a gravel bed, so it doesn't shrink anymore and no more of it gets lost. And then I want to have the enclosure put back."

Many of those buried in the cemetery died young, especially women and children. Schaefer said the average life expectancy was 40 years in those days.

"Women dying during childbirth, they went like flies. And for children to make it to the first year or two was a miracle. That's why they had so many kids," he said.

"This cemetery supposedly has a reputation as being one of the most haunted cemeteries in Memphis," Schaefer said. "I've never experienced anything out here. If there are spirits floating around, they're very friendly and thankful that we're here and trying to clean it up."

Schaefer said he and the others trying to restore Old Raleigh would welcome more help. For information on how to get involved, visit the Raleigh Cemetery (Memphis, TN) Facebook page.

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