It’s been said that the dead tell no tales, but patrons and staff at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) know that’s not true. The study of cemeteries – and the people who are buried in them – can often provide helpful historical clues, particularly the field of genealogy.
With that in mind, TSLA is hosting a free exhibit called “Silent Cities of the Dead,” which focuses on various cemeteries around the state and the role those cemeteries play in the study of history.
For example, Nashville City Cemetery is one of the cemeteries highlighted in the exhibit. The cemetery is part of the National Register of Historic Places and is the final resting place for nearly 11,000 people, including four of Nashville’s founding fathers.
Other cemeteries featured in the exhibit include First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, also on the National Register of Historic Places and the oldest cemetery in Knoxville; Upper Cumberland Cemeteries, which has the largest concentration of “tent-style” graves in the United States; and Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, where many of the city’s historical figures were laid to rest.
(A book titled “Elmwood 1874” by Captain Joseph Lenow was the inspiration for the exhibit’s name. The preface of the book states: “Why not write the story of the Silent City of the Dead? Why not tell who and what they were and what they did…”)
“All of our exhibits highlight the collections at TSLA, and we choose topics of interest to our patrons,” said State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill. “Ninety percent of the people who come into the building are here for genealogy purposes. Cemetery records, published or on microfilm, are among the sources genealogists turn to most often when they do research here. ”
Genealogy is the study of families, tracing their lineages and history. Often genealogists use oral traditions and historical records to obtain information about a family.
“We found the burial places of individuals whose papers or diaries we actually house here,” said James Castro, chair of TSLA’s exhibits committee. “The exhibit references two early governors who are buried in Memphis and Nashville and whose papers are here in the archives. We also included a prominent pastor whose sermons are in our files and other people who left their mark in some way. It all helps to show what TSLA has to offer.”
The exhibit, now open, will run through the first week in March.
The TSLA building is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Central Time and is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol in downtown Nashville. Parking is available around the building.
The TSLA is a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. TSLA is the state’s primary repository of books and records of historical, documentary and reference value. Those resources are available at the State Library and Archives building or online at tn.gov/tsla.