History of Southern Memorial Association
Did you know that organization is 150 years old?
The City of Lynchburg owns Old City Cemetery, but it has a contract with the Southern Memorial Association to manage the historic property on behalf of the City. The year 2016 is special to SMA because it marks the 150th anniversary of the organization’s founding. For 150 years the City and SMA have been working together to maintain and beautify Lynchburg’s first and only municipal burial ground.
SMA was formed on Thursday evening, April 26, 1866, in the lecture room of the Methodist Protestant Church on Church Street, almost exactly one year after the end of the Civil War. Its official purpose was to protect the Civil War graves in the “Old Methodist Graveyard” (Old City Cemetery) with a permanent wall, since none existed and the place had become “exposed to all manner of depredations and desecrations.” (The primary complaint was that the Cemetery had become “a range for stock of all kinds, which roam over it at will.”)
Although the first meeting was led by men, all of the officers elected that night were women and, in fact, the original name of the group was “Ladies Memorial Association.” The first president was Susan Walker Bocock (1828–1901), wife of local attorney and bank president Henry Flood Bocock (1819–1892). Every member and officer of SMA since 1866 has been a volunteer. The first paid staff was not hired until 2000.
Before SMA could raise the funds needed to enclose the Cemetery, it took on the monumental task of organizing Lynchburg’s first Memorial Day. The ladies chose May 10, 1866, for the event, the third anniversary of the death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. For most of the next 150 years SMA led Lynchburg’s Memorial Day ceremonies. Some years there were elaborate parades that marched from downtown, up Fifth Street, and into Old City Cemetery. Some years only a handful of ladies and veterans visited the graveyard to pay quiet tribute to the Confederate dead. SMA helped Lynchburg grieve after the Civil War and shape its collective memory of the event.
Together SMA and the City completed the extensive brick wall around the Cemetery in May 1868, but SMA didn’t stop there. Over the next 75 years the organization raised funds for just about every other monument and improvement we see in the Confederate Section today, including the central obelisk, stone archway, speakers belvedere, and over 2,000 individual soldiers’ headstones.
SMA was profoundly transformed under the leadership of Jane Baber White, who became an officer in the organization in the early 1980s. Following a devastating summer storm in 1993, White changed SMA’s mission and focus from caring for the Confederate Section of Old City Cemetery to caring for the entire 27-acre property, including all of its nearly 20,000 graves. The organization’s name was changed from “Lynchburg Confederate Memorial Association” to “Southern Memorial Association,” and SMA received official 501(c)(3) non-profit status from the IRS.
The modern “Gravegarden” we know today took shape during Jane White’s tenure as SMA Treasurer, Restoration Chairman, and Cemetery Director. Between 1987 and her retirement in 2007, the following structures were built and improvements made: Pest House Medical Museum, Cemetery Center, Hearse House and Caretakers Museum, Station House Museum, Bicentennial Chapel and Columbarium, Lotus Pond and Butterfly Garden, Scatter Gardens (for both people and “beloved animals”), Gatehouse, antique rose gardens, Earley Memorial Shrub Garden, and Dolan Memorial Dovecote. SMA published several books, including the national award winning cookbook Food to Die For. The Cemetery became the most visited historic site in the City and a major tourist destination that attracted people from across the country.
The effort of a few dedicated citizens to improve Old City Cemetery in the spring of 1866 continues today, stronger and more committed than ever. SMA’s signature anniversary project for 2016 is the construction of the Comfort House, a small two-story building near the Chapel. The Comfort House will enhance the beauty and interest of the Cemetery, improve the overall visitor experience, and support the long-term sustainability of Lynchburg’s most visited historic site. This special anniversary gift will begin a new chapter in the life of our unique “gravegarden.”