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Atlanta’s Cultural History as Reflected in a Restroom

Restrooms can be an unexpected reflection of cultural history. From the aqueduct and spring-fed public baths of the Roman Empire to the domed hammams of Turkey, public facilities reveal a society’s attitudes towards hygiene, labor, architecture, and social stratification. The newly-restored Women’s Comfort Station is no exception, and Historic Oakland Foundation is excited to announce the grand reveal of the structure at this year’s Sunday in the Park event on September 29th.

The Women’s Comfort Station and the Men’s Comfort Station were both constructed in 1908 to serve as restroom facilities for Oakland Cemetery. Comfort stations were common features in public parks in the early twentieth century, but rare in cemeteries. Oakland’s comfort stations are believed to be the oldest surviving examples of this type of structure in Atlanta.

From its material origins, the Women’s Comfort Station tells the story of Atlanta’s built environment and the story of those who built it. The Women’s Comfort Station is a load-bearing masonry structure, meaning that the bulk of its support comes from the three layers of brick (called “wythes”) comprising its exterior walls. While the outer wythe is a finished buff-colored brick, the inner two are of “common brick”, manufactured locally. While the exact source of the Comfort Station’s common brick is currently unknown, brickmaking has a long and often fraught history in Georgia. It was predominately African American brick masons that generated brick production in the state, both before and after emancipation, and well into the twentieth century.

The restoration and interpretation of the Women’s Comfort Station is part of a larger commitment of the Historic Oakland Foundation to share and preserve the Oakland Cemetery, highlighting the ways in which the city’s history is mirrored and contained within its walls.

Convict leasing forced thousands of Black men into this labor field in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many of whom had been jailed for arbitrary reasons during the oppressive years of Jim Crow. Oakland resident and former Atlanta mayor James English was particularly notorious for his use of convict labor for his Chattahoochee Brick Company, effectively enslaving over 1,000 prisoners at a labor camp that produced over 33 million bricks annually. Governor Hoke Smith, another Oakland resident, ended the inhumane practice in 1908, the same year the comfort stations were completed.

Restrooms are one of the most intimate places in which the politics of an era impact the daily lives of those experiencing its course. Following major breakthroughs in the fields of medicine and microbiology, the turn of the twentieth century saw a massive uptick of interest in public health and personal cleanliness. This concern for providing facilities for visitors to the cemetery is visible in the 1907 Cemetery Commission’s ordinance proposal for the comfort stations, outlining the need for facilities and that they should “be kept in a sanitary condition by the employees of this department.” The Women’s Comfort Station was built to connect with the city’s water lines, and would have featured running water and interior plumbing.

Ida Borders was one of Oakland’s first female employees, and she maintained the Women’s Comfort Station as its attendant. Borders worked six days a week, earning $.80 a day at the start of her employment in 1912. She later worked as a clerk and gardener, earning $1.75 a day by the time she left employment in the 1930s. As an African American woman, Ida Borders could not expect to use the facilities she cleaned. Early public health initiatives were often closely aligned with the fledgling eugenics movement in the United States, which manifested in discriminatory policies against African Americans. City parks in Georgia had been racially segregated by state law since 1905. While not housed under the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation until 1932, Oakland Cemetery was utilized by Atlanta’s citizens as a public park since its origins. As a result, the cemetery needed public facilities to support its use, and the comfort stations would have been subject to the norms of segregation enforced by White southerners at that time. The segregation of Oakland’s burials and facilities wouldn’t end until desegregation policies were enforced in the 1960s.

Drawing of the Women’s Comfort Station by Christine Leinbach

The restoration and interpretation of the Women’s Comfort Station is part of a larger commitment of the Historic Oakland Foundation to share and preserve the Oakland Cemetery, highlighting the ways in which the city’s history is mirrored and contained within its walls. By ensuring the survival of this significant structure, we provide access to more than a century of change viewed through its windows, and a glimpse at the lives of those who crafted its walls and crossed its threshold.

The Foundation’s Sunday in the Park event has long been a celebration of Oakland’s diverse, complex, and formative Victorian history, and this year’s grand reveal of the Women’s Comfort Station falls in line with this tradition. Make sure to stop by the historic structure on September 29th to view almost two years of work carried out by Oakland’s preservation team, and to enjoy a beautiful Sunday in the Park!

Sunday in the Park is Oakland Cemetery’s longest-running event, now celebrating its 41st anniversary. It takes place this year on Sunday, September 29th, from Noon to 6:00 PM. The event is free and open to the public.

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