Free tours filled at Oakland Cemetery’s partly restored African American Grounds

By David Pendered

It’s good news, with a twist. The free, guided walking tours of Oakland Cemetery’s African American Grounds are sold out every weekend in Black History Month. The sell-outs happen to coincide with the completion of the first hardscape restoration in this part of the cemetery.

Oakland, African American Grounds

Historic Oakland Foundation has completed the first phase of restoring the African American Grounds and continues to raise funds to finish the next two phases. Credit: oaklandcemetery.com

Oakland’s page on its website for the tours notes that alternatives to the free, general tours include those available year-round to private groups, via a mobile app and a self-guided cell phone tour. Any attention to this section of the cemetery is likely to prompt visitors to donate to the ongoing fundraising effort to continue the restoration.

Oakland is highlighting this month’s tours of the African American Grounds.

In less than two years, the Historic Oakland Foundation has raised money for the project to restore about an acre of the African American Grounds. This phase was started in January 2017 and appears to represent about a third of the work to be done.

If all goes as planned, the foundation hopes to complete the entire restoration in the autumn of 2019.

The budget for the completed phase one was about $70,000. The budget for the entire restoration of some 872 sites of probable human remains is in the range of $436,000. The fundraising effort continues.

Ashley Shares, the preservation manager for the restoration project, takes readers right into the restoration process through her narratives on a page of HOF’s website.

Here’s how Shares described what she called “Interesting Finds” in the African American Grounds:

A marker in the African American Grounds of Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

“More than in any other section the PRO Team [Preservation, Restoration and Operations Team] has worked in at Oakland, we have learned to “expect the unexpected” in the African American Grounds.

  • “When we remove a headstone or monument to even out the soil or pour a new concrete base, we often find fragments of other headstones. Sometimes this is in the form of a marble shard being used to wedge a headstone into place. Other times, the pieces are scattered in the soil, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
  • “Unfortunately most of these pieces are small and cannot be linked to any particular grave site. In one case though, we were able to reconstruct enough of a headstone to determine that it belonged to Ophelia Wellborn, a white female buried across Monument Drive in the East Hill section.
  • A marker in the African American Grounds of Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

    “How her shattered headstone ended up in the African American Grounds, beneath the very large headstone belonging to Samuel Flood is not known. It is my best guess that her headstone, made of a thin marble tablet, was broken and covered over time. When dirt was needed to fill around the Flood monument, workmen went to the Wellborn plot to get some, scooping up pieces of her headstone in the process.

  • “Other items we find whilst digging around have included pottery and glass shards and historic bricks.”

Almost nothing remains to mark these graves. Headstones and other visual markers weren’t commonly used. Historic African American burial traditions used natural markers that have disappeared over time – wood markers, shrubs and flowers, according to a page on the website of Historic Oakland Foundation.

The graves were discovered by researchers who used ground-penetrating radar to locate suspected graves. Each grave was marked with a red marker and its location was uploaded into a global positioning system in order to enable further research efforts.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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