Hollywood Cemetery Memphis, TN

Memphis’s Black Cemeteries Are In Disrepair, But There Is A Path Forward

The path of Olivewood charts a potential course for Hollywood Cemetery and the other Black cemeteries of Memphis to take, but it will take community involvement as well as applied pressure and vigilance

In 2021, the City of Memphis promised to clean up its blighted cemeteries following an investigative report from WREG that indicated the Hollywood cemetery, a historically Black cemetery, was among several in dire need of upkeep. However, a new report suggests that the city has not lived up to that promise and has left Memphis’s Black community holding the bag after it initially received hope that something would be done. 

As MLK 50 reports, it has been nearly three years since the City of Memphis and Shelby County, which is the county that houses Memphis, promised to allocate $30,000 to help with the upkeep of five cemeteries, including Hollywood. So far, allegedly, nothing has been done. The situation in Memphis is similar to other cities, where Black cemeteries are either in disrepair or outright hidden by cities and counties who are not motivated to show the dead the respect they deserve. 


As to why this is the case, the answer in Memphis changes depending on who you ask and if the cemetery is connected to a church or not. In Tennessee, laws exist that require commercial cemeteries to establish a separate fund for upkeep, but the law is not applied to churches. According to Shelby County’s official historian, Jimmy Rout III, that provision is also not the only one that convolutes the funding for Black cemeteries connected to churches.

Tennessee only allows 4% of a church-connected cemetery’s trust fund to be used for upkeep, which Rout told MLK 50 is insufficient to meet the actual maintenance costs. Hollywood and Rose Hill, another church-connected Black cemetery, each have $360,000 in their funds but can only use $12,000 to take care of the grounds. 

$35,000 is “…just keeping it (the cemetery) cut because we have a long growing season…As a business proposition, it’s a bad proposition … As a humanitarian proposition, we have to take responsibility for something that the system did not provide enough money for. That’s my view.” Rout III said. 

Theresa Hill Mays, the president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Memphis and the Mid-South, has a different view. While she acknowledges some of the problem is systemic, Hill Mays also suggests that some of the blame lies at the feet of Memphis’s Black community. “Some of this problem is systemic,” Hill Mays told MLK 50. “The response to Black people and Black cemeteries is not the same as with [mainly white] Memorial Park … But we ourselves have neglected our duty and allowed places like Hollywood to fall into disrepair.”

A similar story unfolded in Houston at its historic Olivewood Cemetery, the first Black cemetery incorporated by the City of Houston in 1875. Olivewood and College Memorial Park, where Jack Yates is buried, have been the focus of renovations after being neglected for years. Yates, whose name was given to Third Ward’s Jack Yates High School, was the first pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, Houston’s first Black Baptist church, and later founded Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. 

As Texas Monthly reported in 2021, it was largely through the efforts of Margott Williams and Charles Cook that Olivewood was restored. “It just kept bugging me that Olivewood looked the way that it looked. For years, I came out here pushing that lawn mower and doing all of those things, and sometimes I would keep looking at where I parked at, going—nobody yet? Do it for another hour or two. I’d look around—nobody yet? Then, you come do that day after day after day,” Williams told the outlet. 

Eventually, Williams connected with Cook, and the two helped create the Descendants of Olivewood nonprofit, founded to preserve the legacy of those interred at Olivewood Cemetery. In 2008, that group was given guardianship of the cemetery, and through church members, companies, and community members joining the group’s clean-up days, the old cemetery was restored.

Houston’s Olivewood Cemetery’s path charts a potential course for Hollywood Cemetery and the other Black cemeteries of Memphis.