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African American Grounds

In 2017 HOF began phased restoration of the cemetery’s three-and-a-half acre African American 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 is hardscape restoration to be done to walls, walkways, and the remaining headstones.

The main project objectives for the three phases of the African American Grounds are to carefully repair and stabilize a variety of unique and fragile headstones, to rebuild and re-grout retaining walls, and to pave the historic pathways to improve access throughout the section. HOF staff will also install appropriate landscaping as well as tasteful interpretive signage to further educate the public on our shared history.

Project In Progress

Total Cost: $436K

  • Funding Raised: $217K
  • Funding Needed: $219K
Phase 1 - Completed in Early 2018
Phase 2 - Completed in Late 2018
Phase 3 - complete by 2020

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.

The African American Grounds are located east of the Carriage House and south of Potter’s Field. See it on the map here.

Expecting the Unexpected

More than in any other section they have worked on in at Oakland, the PRO Team has learned to “expect the unexpected” in the African American Grounds. When the PRO Team removes a headstone or monument to even out the soil or pour a new concrete base, they occasionally find fragments of other headstones. Sometimes this is in the form of a marble shard being used to wedge a headstone into place. Other times, the pieces are 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 are proving much more prevalent in the African American Grounds

So far, the PRO Team has 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 a 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.”

Other items we find while digging around have included historic bricks.

Invest and Honor

As we continue the African American Grounds hardscape and landscape restoration, community engagement and support is critical. Financial support from donors like you make it possible to properly honor these pioneering citizens.

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