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African American Grounds

In 2022 HOF completed a phased restoration of the cemetery’s historic, three-and-a-half acre African American Burial Grounds which had previously not undergone a large-scale restoration in more than 100 years. Though the area is more sparsely “populated” with grave markers than other areas of the cemetery, there was hardscape restoration to be done to walls, family monuments, and a variety of unique individual headstones.

The main project objectives for the African American Grounds project were to carefully repair and stabilize a variety of unique and fragile headstones and to rebuild and to re-grout retaining walls with compatible and sympathetic materials. HOF staff has also installed appropriate landscaping and interpretive signage to further educate the public on our shared history.

Project In Progress

Total Cost: $600K

Phase 1 - Completed in Early 2018
Phase 2 - Completed in Late 2018
Phase 3 - Completed in Early 2022

What Lies Beneath? Pre-Restoration Survey

Historic African-American burial traditions utilized natural markers like wood, shrubbery, or flowers, which have been lost through the passage of time. Therefore, much of this section of Oakland Cemetery is bereft of headstones or other visual markers. This creates unique opportunities and challenges for HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team in terms of hardscape restoration.

To determine what lies beneath, HOF partnered with Atlanta-based remote sensing firm Bigman Geophysical for a technologically advanced survey of the three acres six months before the restoration project began. The result of the survey found some 872 probable unmarked burials in the African-American Grounds. The PRO Team cross-referenced the flagged locations with the cemetery’s burial records to verify the data. Some of the missing headstones have been recovered thanks to careful probing.

Expecting the Unexpected

More than in any other section they have worked on in at Oakland, the PRO Team learned to “expect the unexpected” in the African American Grounds. When the PRO Team removed a headstone or monument to even out the soil or pour a new concrete base, they occasionally found fragments of other headstones. Sometimes this was in the form of a marble shard being used to wedge a headstone into place. Other times, the pieces were scattered in the soil, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

While limited instances of these types of findings have occurred in other areas of the cemetery during preservation work, they proved much more prevalent in the African American Grounds.

The PRO Team unearthed marble coping surrounding a plot that had been hidden over time by soil, a large chunk of quartz inside a brick cradling, headstones buried under shrubbery, and an entire buried brick wall. Walls made up of scrap material such as pieces of cradling used as coping have been found too. They have found a headstone that had inscriptions on the bottom (did the carver make a mistake?), and a headstone for a woman who is not even buried at Oakland.

African American graves were often marked with “grave goods” – household items such as cookware, bottles, plates, and the like or with natural objects like shells. Articles like these are easily lost to time, but we hope that we may happen upon some. While the PRO Team has found pottery and glass shards as well as shells, none can be definitely labeled as “grave goods.”

Although it is reasonable to say that our work in this section is “complete,” we anticipate that surprises will continue to pop up as the GROW team completes the gardening of this section.

Invest and Honor

Now that we have completed the restoration of this historic section, help us provide perpetual upkeep and ongoing maintenance of this important part of Oakland by contributing to the African American Burial Grounds endowment fund.

Restoration News

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