West View Historic Cemetery District
The West View Cemetery District includes a surprisingly diverse array of individual graveyards. The Lonas Family Cemetery and the Middlebrook Cemetery reflect the centuries-old residential communities of this once-rural area. The New Jewish Cemetery, established in the late 1800s, keeps its name to distinguish it from an older Jewish cemetery in East Knoxville; the burial place of hundreds of immigrants, it features many stones carved in Hebrew. The Crestview, Longview, and Southern Chain Cemeteries are a cluster of African-American burying places, first established in the late 1800s but most actively used in the early to mid 20th century. Blacks from all around Knoxville were buried here for almost a century, among them many prominent community leaders, including teachers, doctors, and authors. The latter three graveyards were victims of financial abuse and neglect, were long overgrown and all but forgotten, but in recent years community groups have led an effort to rehabilitate them and tell their story in a new century.
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For more information about volunteer opportunities, clean up events, donations, and future plans, contact West View Community Action Group, Ellen Adcock firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Crestview, Longview & Southern Chain Cemeteries
This hillside cluster of graveyards constitutes the largest predominantly African-American cemetery in West Knoxville. It began in 1873 as a rural plot of the family of William Bradley (ca. 1826–1910), who is buried here. The development of nearby New Gray, then a white cemetery, in 1890 may have suggested the potential for a large black cemetery on this hillside. In 1898, the Bradley family sold several acres of their plot to the Southern Chain Lodge, an African-American chapter of the Odd Fellows fraternal organization. At the time, several such fraternal organizations and “secret societies” offered various kinds of insurance, including burial plans, as amenities for members.
What was originally known as Hall Town (or Halltown) Cemetery was organized around 1910 in this community that was then still outside Knoxville’s city limits.
A separate but associated cemetery known as Longview was established with its first burial around 1915. It was specifically a project of the Lillison Mortuary, established by William Lillison (d. 1931), a well-educated former teacher and longtime police officer, who was so respected in the national black community that his 1921 retirement was noted in W.E.B. Dubois’s national magazine, The Crisis. His son-in-law was physician Dr. Garfield Mills (1880–1968)—who was named for the president elected the week Mills was born. A Meharry graduate, Dr. Mills became a partner in the mortuary and the caretaker of the cluster of cemeteries for many years.
Most of the hillside remained restricted to members of the Odd Fellows fraternity and their families until about 1922, when the largest part of the cemetery, replacing the antiquated name of Hall Town with the new name “Crestview,” opened as a “memorial garden”—a cemetery available to the general public, regardless of fraternal affiliations. It became Knoxville’s largest black cemetery. Records indicate around 15,000 burials in the three graveyards, though unrecorded burials may make that figure much higher. Part of the hillside, still reserved for Odd Fellows, retained the name Southern Chain.
Dr. Mills lived near the cemetery on Keith Avenue, but most of those interred here were from urban neighborhoods in Knoxville, on the east and north sides of downtown, as well as in Mechanicsville. Combined, these three graveyards are the final resting place of many teachers, mechanics, clergymen, washerwomen, barbers, shopkeepers, cooks, gardeners. Among those buried at Crestview is Charles W. Cansler (1871–1953), attorney and Republican politician who is especially well-known as an educator, principal of Austin High and Green Elementary, as well as a respected author of African-American history. His wife, Lillian (1876–1940), who was a teacher at Knoxville College, is also buried here.
After the death of Dr. Mills and other caretakers who had tended the cemeteries well for half a century, dishonest owners exploited the perpetual-care funds, and the graveyards lapsed into disuse, becoming overgrown with a small forest of thick underbrush and trees, by 1977 described as in “deplorable shape.” Some affluent families had their loved ones’ graves exhumed and moved to other cemeteries. Ida Cox (1893?–1967), the Georgia-born jazz and blues singer, songwriter, and nationally known recording artist of the 1920s and 30s, was reportedly buried at Longview, but her grave is now just over the ridge in New Gray.
In 1993, the State Department of Commerce and Insurance acquired the property through legal action and turned it over to the West View Community Action Group, which oversees the property in partnership with the Knox County Sheriff’s Department.
Today the Crestview, Longview, and Southern Chain Cemeteries remain as a testament to the initiative to establish a cemetery in a beautiful place, and as a memorial to the thousands buried here.