Oakland Cemetery restores graves in African American Grounds; seeks volunteers on MLK day

By David Pendered

Oakland Cemetery has restored the graves of two black women who accomplished the unthinkable at the turn of the 20th century. One was graduated from medical school and her sister served as a lawyer and professor at Morris Brown College.

This close-up photo of the grave site of Dr. Beatrice Thompson shows the damaged stones and general lack of upkeep. The site has has since been restored by Historic Oakland Foundation. Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

This close-up photo of the grave site of Dr. Beatrice Thompson shows the damaged stones and general lack of upkeep. The site has has since been restored by Historic Oakland Foundation. Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

“This year we begin a concerted focus on restoring the African American Grounds and the work on the Thompson lot is a monumental first step for the Foundation,” David Moore, executive director of Historic Oakland Foundation, said in a statement.

“We want to keep the momentum around this project going and in order to do so, we need support in the form of both community involvement and financial backing from public and private donors,” Moore said.

In 2016, a survey team hired by the foundation identified the probable human remains of 872 persons. Headstones and other visual markers were not commonly used. According to HOF, historic African American burial traditions used natural markers that have disappeared over time – wood markers, shrubs and flowers.

Consequently, this section of the graveyard is not marked with the sorts of markers common in other sections of the graveyard.

The graves of Dr. Beatrice Thompson and her sister Estella Henderson have been restored.

Thompson established a medical practice in Athens after being graduated from medical school in 1901. This was a rare accomplishment for any woman, let alone a woman of color, at the time, according to Historic Oakland Foundation.

Thompson Lot before repair (detail) Courtesy Historic Oakland Foundation

The grave site of Dr. Beatrice Thompson had fallen into disrepair at Historic Oakland Cemetery. The site has been restored through donations provided by visitors to the city’s burial ground. Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

Henderson is buried next to her sister and the sister’s plot was restored, as well. Henderson was a lawyer and served as a professor at Morris Brown College, according to the foundation.

The two plots were among nine recorded burials in the Thompson plot, according to Historic Oakland Foundation. Each of the monuments were restored from deteriorated conditions. Four of the nine burials have monuments associated with them. The monuments were uneven broken and generally unstable due to the effects of passing time,

Restoration plans call for a new headstone to be installed for Dr. Thompson and her husband, Sidney Thompson. The husband was a probation officer with Fulton County’s juvenile court. The husband also was the founded of the first Atlanta Boy’s Club, according to Historic Oakland Foundation.

The markers are to be installed during a private ceremony this Spring.

In addition to the work on monuments, the foundation’s garden team is slated to improve the Thompson lot with period-appropriate landscaping.

Funding for the work on the plot of the Thompson sisters was raised last year. A record-breaking sum of $7,500 was donated in October by folks attendingthe Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours.

The foundation estimates that an additional $300,000 is needed to complete the African American Grounds restoration project.


Editor’s Note: Historic Oakland Foundation will mark the Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service, on Jan. 16, with an opportunity to clean headstones and do landscaping tasks throughout the cemetery, including headstone cleaning at the African American Grounds. Please RSVP at this website.

Through Black History Month, in February, the foudation will offer free guided walking tours of the African American Grounds. For more information visit oaklandcemetery.com.

Oakland Cemetery, GPR

Researchers with Atlanta-based Bigman Geophysical used ground penetrating radar to locate human remains in the African American section of Oakland Cemetery in 2016. File/Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

Oakland Cemetery, unmarked graves

Some 872 probable human remains have been discovered in the African American section of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. File/Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

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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