By David Pendered
Historic Oakland Cemetery is expanding its efforts to share information about the restoration of the African American Grounds section of the city’s cemetery. Two guided tours are scheduled this week, on Wednesday and Saturday. Admission is free and registration is required.
This tour will cover a section of the cemetery that is in the early stages of restoration. Just last year, researchers discovered the probable human remains of 872 persons in the African American Grounds. The restoration effort commenced in January.
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.
The hour-long tours this week aim to continue the momentum that began with a community conversation held in June. “Restoration, Remembrance, and Reunion” enabled cemetery leaders to discuss the plans to restore, interpret and share information about the grounds. The two tours are to be guided by the same team that facilitated the event in June: David Moore, executive director of Historic Oakland Foundation; and D.L. Henderson, a historian and board member of Oakland’s 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).”
Note to readers: For information on the tours of the African American Grounds at Historic Oakland Cemetery, visit the registration page.