University District

University District partnership transforms neglected cemetery into tranquil park

“When I first moved into the neighborhood, I thought it was a dump,” said Wilma Taylor, member and former president of the Normal Station Neighborhood Association, of a tucked-away cemetery lot. “You couldn’t walk through it because it was so grown over.”

The Madison-Eckles Cemetery Park isn't overgrown anymore. Located on the 3700 block of Carnes Street, it's come a long way since Taylor moved to Normal Station in the University District in the early 2000s. Now she is a trustee of the 1.5-acre cemetery.

A partnership between the NSNA and the University of Memphis is slowly transforming the lot into a pocket park with seating, lighting, a patio and more. The groups hope to both respect its long-passed residents and benefit today's neighbors with physical enhancements.

Currently, a casual passerby might mistake the fledgling park for an empty lot, but even in its current state, the pocket park has become a place where local residents can walk their dogs, spot native plant species and discover some local history.

The burial site of Harry Madison, one of two headstones in the Madison-Eckles Cemetery Park that is still legible. (Ziggy Mack)
Just beyond the shallow brick stairs that mark the park entrance, a white sign on a metal post displays the park name and a brick-lined path winds its way toward a small collection of worn grey tombstones.

The cemetery, located toward the back center of the park and encircled by a walking path on both sides, is the resting place of five identified and five unidentified gravesites, marked with faded tombstones and flat granite slabs. Some additional burial sites have been detected to the west of the marked cemetery, in the area of the park not accessible by walking paths.

Another path, veering to the left at the entrance, loops through the eastern end of the park. Green shoots and newly planted trees can be seen peeking out through fallen leaves, dwarfed by the tall oak trees scattered throughout.

The land was originally purchased by William F. Eckles as part of a 412-acre tract in 1838. Eckles later subdivided the land, selling part to a relative, Harry Madison. The plot was used as a family burial ground from 1887 through 1926, based on published obituary dates and a 1973 land survey.

Sometime after its last burial, the families that used and maintained it moved away and it began to be reclaimed by trash and vegetation. Since the 1970s there have been several attempts to clear the property but none saw lasting success.

Today's Park Partnership  

A strategic partnership between the NSNA and the University of Memphis began in 2012.

That year, Tk Buchanan, community safety liaison with University of Memphis Campus Police, began meeting with NSNA to address an uptick in neighborhood crime. The Madison-Eckles Cemetery was repeatedly identified as a priority issue. The site was overgrown with bamboo and poison ivy and littered with cans, food leftovers, CDs and broken furniture. Residents suspected people were using a breach in the fence along the back of the property to cut through to the other side of the block and sleep onsight overnight.

When NSNA tried to contact the property owner, the last known heirs of the Madison family responded that they did not own the property and had no interest in taking ownership.

“It was hard to know how to proceed, it was definitely a situation that required a lawyer to work through,” said Margaret Vandiver, former NSNA Vice President and current member.

In 2014, NSNA partnered with Michael Chisamore, a faculty member of the University Memphis Architecture Department. The team was awarded an $18,000 Capacity Building Grant through the Strengthening Communities Initiative that allowed them to hire attorney John Smith.

They sued the State of Tennessee for adverse possession, which allows the person caring for property to assume lawful ownership when its last known owner has neglected or abandoned the property. By the end of 2014, NSNA was granted legal ownership of the property.

(L to R) Verlinda Henning, TK Buchanan, Attorney John Smith, Margaret Vandiver, and Wilma Taylor celebrating winning the lawsuit that granted the Normal Station Neighborhood Association ownership of the Madison-Eckles Cemetery. (Submitted)

Progress and PLans

The grant also funded a series of design charrettes facilitated by Chisamore. Architecture students worked with neighborhood residents to develop site plans and renderings, including designs for a neighborhood bulletin board and patio awning.

At the site, Normal Station residents, college students, church groups, Memphis City Beautiful, and Clean Memphis all contributed volunteers and supplies for cleanup. Bamboo overgrowth, poison ivy, tires, chunks of pavement and a functioning stoplight were among the debris removed. They hired professionals to remove three dead trees from the property which were too large and dangerous to be removed by volunteer labor.

NSNA planted oak trees, monkey grass, redbuds, vinca minor and other native species to create a lush, curated park experience. Volunteers helped restore much of the original cemetery’s old path network and added a brick patio using hammered mulch donated by the City of Memphis Parks and Recreation Department and bricks donated by the University of Memphis. The second spring after clearing the lot, residents were pleasantly surprised when several rows of daffodils sprouted on their own along an embankment.

NSNA also worked with archeology students to research the history of the cemetery. In addition to ten marked gravesites, ground penetrating radar revealed the existence of additional burial sites (more investigation is needed to determine the precise number), which are located on the west side of the park, and may have belonged to servants or enslaved African-Americans.

Future Plans

In the future, NSNA plans to restore the tombstones, only two are which are currently legible. They also plan to install a fence to partition the gravesites from the remaining public greenspace. NSNA said the division is important for residents to feel comfortable spending time in a cemetery. They also noted that though many people today feel nervous about cemeteries, that wasn’t always the case.

“At the turn of the century, it was very normal for middle-class families to go picnic in cemeteries after church,” said Taylor.

One unrestored path in the park appears to have led to the neighborhood corner store, now Avenue Coffee, suggesting that the Madison-Eckles Cemetery might have been a similar space for community activity.

In addition to an information board and patio awning, NSNA hopes to add stump seating, a community library station, motion-sensor lighting and a bike rack. They also hope to make the paths and entrances ADA accessible.

In the future, the park might become part of a larger bike-ped network connecting it with wayfinding signage to other parks, gardens, dog parks and bike paths in the University District and beyond.

Buchanan estimates that future cemetery restoration and park improvements will cost around $250,000. NSNA has yet to identify a funding source for the remaining improvements. They are considering applying for Strategic Community Investment Funds from the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development or launching a crowdfunding campaign.
Though there is still much work to be done, Vandiver is proud of their accomplishments.

“It’s gone from being a negative to the neighborhood to being a real asset. We’ve got a long way to go, but I feel like we’ve turned a real corner on it,” she said.

“We’re hoping more and more people use it as a green space,” added Buchanan. “It belongs to everybody, and we want everybody to use it and enjoy it.”
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Read more articles by Scarlet Ponder.

Scarlet Ponder is a certified urban planner and an honorary Memphian of five years. As a freelance writer and local transit planer, she is passionate about promoting equitable urban policy and amplifying the stories of everyday change-makers.