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