First African-American Headstone, Taken From Raleigh Cemetery In The ’70s, Found

(Memphis) A headstone belonging to an African-American woman is returning to Memphis’ oldest cemetery. It’s exciting news, because she was buried in what was supposed to be a segregated cemetery.

It’s the first one to be discovered.

Volunteers have been cleaning up the Raleigh Cemetery, finding graves that have long been hidden by dirt and debris.

Someone contacted the volunteers about a headstone that had belonged there.

The man who had the stone said he’d been lugging it with him through all his moves since the 1970s, but when he saw WREG’s story, he finally knew who to contact about it.

Dale Schaefer has been poking around the Raleigh cemetery for years, each time searching for something new.

“I think for the last 100 years it is been pretty much abandoned,” said Schaefer, a volunteer with a passion for history.

So far, he’s discovered about 75 headstones that were covered for years with inches of dirt. Monday, a volunteer discovered another stone.

“’NJ’ was right here,” said the volunteer.

WREG ran a story in early April about how volunteers are cleaning up Memphis’ oldest public cemetery to learn more about our past.

Dale says that TV story sparked a conversation.

“Someone sent me a message through Facebook and said ‘I have a stone that was taken from the Raleigh cemetery back in the 1970s. Would you be interested in having it back? I said ‘Absolutely! I would be interested in having it back.’”

It belonged to a woman named Sofia Ward who died in 1900.

She’s the first African-American that Dale has discovered in the Raleigh cemetery since he started unearthing headstones more than three years ago.

“Cemeteries were segregated in those days. Raleigh Cemetery was a public cemetery and it was probably segregated within the cemetery but it was integrated and there were black people buried here.”

The cemetery is home to Memphis’ second mayor and members of the Shelby family, whom the county is named after.

The oldest stone found dates back to 1831.

Dale says he didn’t ask the man how he had Sofia Ward’s stone.

“I have policy when it comes to old stones like this taken out. I asked no questions. I don’t want to know why it was taken. I don’t want to know who took it. I just want it returned.”

Now he says he’s searching for Sofia’s husband, who according to census documents was a laborer from the 1800s and was long ago was laid to rest by his wife’s side.

You can check out what the volunteers are doing on their Facebook page.

They need more volunteers to keep up with mowing and uncovering old stones.