Historic Oakland Cemetery: African American Burial Grounds capture attention
By David Pendered
Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery has again filled the tour on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Hundreds of volunteers have already enrolled to tidy up the African American Burial Grounds, and limited openings remain to tour these grounds during February’s Black History Month.
This year’s MLK Day tour at Historic Oakland Cemetery takes its name from a spiritual song – No More Auction Block for Me. This song factors into the anthem of the civil rights movement, We Shall Overcome, according to a report by the cemetery.
The title begins the name of this year’s MLK Day tour at Historic Oakland Cemetery: We Shall Overcome: African American Stories from Civil War to Civil Rights.
A version of No More Auction Block for Me was performed by Odetta, a performer and activist for civil and human rights, and appears on a recording from a 1960 performance at Carnegie Hall. Odetta Holmes died in 2008 after earning accolades from King and Rosa Parks, according to her website:
- “The Queen of American Folk Music” – Martin Luther King, Jr.;
- “Rosa Parks was once asked which songs meant the most to her. ‘All of the songs Odetta sings,’ she replied.”
These are the sorts of stories that are beginning to surround the African American Burial Grounds. This section of the cemetery contains the suspected human remains of 872 persons, which were discovered by researchers in 2016. The formal restoration effort started in 2017 and several tours are on the calendar in February.
The graves were all but unremarked when they were discovered.
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 the Historic Oakland Foundation.
As with so much of Oakland, the African American Grounds are filled with a who’s who list of notables whose graves were marked with stone and even a mausoleum, according to the cemetery’s website:
- “Bishop Wesley John Gaines: A former slave, second pastor of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and founder of Morris Brown College.
- “Carrie Steele Logan: A former slave who established the first African American orphanage (The Carrie Steele-Pitts Home) in Atlanta.
- “The Rev. Frank Quarles: Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church from 1866-1881. Instrumental in bringing the Augusta Institute (now Morehouse College) to Atlanta and in the founding of Spelman College.
- “Selena Sloan Butler: A Georgia Woman of Achievement and founder of the country’s first Parent Teacher Association for African American children.”
The grounds also remind of how black folks were treated in the early days of the city, which was founded in 1837. This is how Oakland describes the situation:
- “Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 70,000 people, several thousands of whom are of African American descent.
- “In 1852 the Atlanta City Council ruled that people of color were to be buried separately from whites, in public grounds on the eastern boundary of the cemetery’s Original Six Acres. This section was known as “Slave Square,” and by the beginning of the Civil War held the remains of more than 800 people.
- “In 1866 the city designated three acres of another section in Oakland Cemetery for African American burials only. In 1877, the remains of those buried in Slave Square were exhumed and reburied in another section of Oakland Cemetery (“the colored pauper grounds).”