ZEMA W. HILL (1891-1970)
Zema W. Hill
was a faithful and devoted minister, a funeral-home owner, and a notable
leader in Afro-American Nashville. He was born in Franklin County, in the
community of Asia near Winchester, Tennessee, on April 2, 1891. He became
a Christian at an early age, joined the Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church
during its revival services, and became an evangelist during his teenage
years. In 1916, Hill moved to Nashville, where he preached and evangelized
in Hightower Hall. His elegance. good looks, and magnetic preaching style
enlarged his South Nashville congregation until the services had to be
moved under a large tent.
In 1919, a house of worship was dedicated at Overton and Division streets.
Elder A. M. Bedford, the moderator of the Cumberland River Association
of the Order of the Primitive Baptist Church, dedicated the building as
"Hill's Tabernacle." Elder Zema Hill faithfully served the congregation
for thirty years.
In the year his church building was dedicated, Hill also established
the Zema W. Hill Funeral Home at Fourth Avenue, South, and Peabody Street.
During this period, no black insurance companies existed in Nashville,
and there were few black funeral homes. The demand for services caused
the Hill funeral business to expand so rapidly that a large facility was
acquired at Fourth Avenue, South, and Franklin Street. Hill not only arranged
the funerals, he also preached and sang at the services. Although he catered
to the black elite, Hill's civic-minded zeal caused him to arrange funerals
for the destitute as well. These were known as his "silver services,"
where the plate was passed to collect money from the audiences.
The Zema W. Hill Funeral Home moved to 1306 South Street and became
one of the first black businesses in the area. He purchased a fleet of
Packard automobiles in the mid1930s, and his business nourished despite
the economic depression. Over the years, Hill bought many other fine automobiles,
including Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Lincolns. He attracted attention to
his business by printing "Zema W. Hill" in gold letters on his
cars' windows and placing two six-and-a-half-feet concrete polar bears
in front of the funeral home.
Elder Hill left his imprint on Afro-American Nashville through his charismatic
evangelism. During the thirties and forties, whites and blacks, political
leaders, and famous persons attended services at Hill's Tabernacle. Even
some of Nashville's underworld figures could be seen at Hill's Sunday night
services. He was renowned for sermons such as "The Resurrection of
the Dead" and "If a Man Should Die, Shall He Live Again."
Elder Hill's ministerial work was highlighted with his selection as a moderator
emeritus of the Cumberland Association of Primitive Baptists and
builder of the Cumberland Tabernacle in 1944.
Zema W. Hill died on February 5, 1970, after 17 years of illness. A
year before his death, Hill's Tabernacle was rebuilt. At his funeral services
on the morning of February 9 at the Cumberland Primitive Baptist Tabernacle,
Elder C. R. Wooten and others lauded the late Elder Hill as ". . .a
faithful and devoted minister, a loving father, neighbor and friend, and
[who] was respected by all who he came in contact with of both races...."
Hill, who was interred in Mount Ararat Cemetery in Nashville, was survived
by two children: Doris Hill Griner (deceased) and Clarence D. Hill.