Mobile is an old port city founded by French and later Spanish immigrants. As a Roman Catholic colony the burial of citizens took place in the original Catholic cemetery which stretched between Conti and Dauphin streets in front of the present-day Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Protestant English and American settlers began arriving early in the 19th century and Church Street Cemetery was established by the City of Mobile in 1820. Within a decade it became apparent that more land would be needed for burials. Like many coastal cities, Mobile was visited with yellow fever epidemics which killed hundreds of men, women and children.
There had been a national trend to establish cemeteries away from crowded urban centers and the creation of Magnolia Cemetery in 1836 followed that trend. Its original 30 acre tract was outside the city limits but could be reached by carriage and later streetcars.
In 1847 the city began offering lots to various fraternal organizations, free of charge. Members who might not have the money for a plot could be assured of a space with their membership dues. The city would discontinue this practice in 1873.
With the onslaught of the Civil War, Soldier’s Rest was created in 1862, but later renamed Confederate Rest. In 1867 what had been called New City Cemetery became Magnolia Cemetery by order of the City of Mobile.
In 1911 the city council made provisions for automobiles to enter the cemetery but warned motorists that it was not to become a “speedway.” The worry that the machines might frighten a horse was termed a myth.
Although Magnolia Cemetery was city owned, no records of who was buried there were maintained by city employees until 1912. Prior to that it was up to the lot owner to know who was buried where since many graves were never marked.
The cemetery grew in size over the years and now encompasses more than 100 acres. Some 100,000 are buried in Magnolia Cemetery although less than 90,000 are known since many rest in older unmarked graves.
By the middle of the 20th century, Mobilians had largely forgotten about Magnolia Cemetery. A number families had their ancestors and loved ones moved to newer perpetual care cemeteries. The city was only keeping up the roadways and it was considered the lot owner’s responsibility to maintain the lot itself.
In 1981 members of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society founded the Friends of Magnolia Cemetery to conduct volunteer work days. The group cleared brush and grass that had obscured graves and monuments for decades.
In 1987 the Friends entered into a contract with the City of Mobile to operate the cemetery and hire their own personnel. Funds that the city once budgeted on just maintaining roadways and paths were given to the organization each year for funding.
Funds were also raised for restoring broken funerary art and a memorial fence program was begun in the 1990’s to replace a rusted chain link fence. That iron fence now surrounds more than three-quarters of the cemetery.
The Friends of Magnolia Cemetery raises money through memberships and memorials to run its office. It also provides its members with an annual walking tour and three newsletters each year which tell the colorful stories of those Mobilians who are buried here.