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Celebrating Women’s History Month: An Interview With Three Former Chairs of Oakland’s Board of Trustees

Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate and honor women’s contributions to history, culture, and society. Here at Oakland cemetery, we recognize those pioneering women who helped establish the city of Atlanta, fought against discrimination, and championed arts and education. We would also like to honor those who help protect Oakland Cemetery’s legacy and ensure that it will be enjoyed for generations to come.

Our Board of Trustees is a group of passionate and dedicated individuals who help manage Historic Oakland Foundation, govern the organization’s assets, and make decisions that are in the best interest of the cemetery. To mark Women’s History Month, we spoke with three former Chairs of Historic Oakland Foundation: Libba Grace (Interim Executive Director 2005-2006, Board Chair 2010-2011), May B. Hollis (Board Chair 2008-2009), and Donna Barwick (Board Chair 2017-2018) about their experiences leading the group.

Were there any goals or projects that you wanted to tackle during your time as Chair?

May B. Hollis: Yes! A zillion projects! I had so many ideas, and the people around me had so many ideas, that we couldn’t keep up with them. We didn’t know what to do first. For example, Georiga Tech wanted to come out and work on a GIS system, where they would record stories of Oakland residents – you could walk around the cemetery and listen to the audio recordings. Another idea, we wanted to start recycling all the leaves into a compost bin. We definitely wanted to plant more trees. We also wanted to increase our membership. On top of all that, we wanted to restore the monuments and the walls that had fallen apart. In 2009, we also put together a cookbook called Drop Dead Delicious: A Compendium of Immortal Recipes for Appetizers. The Oakland staff and volunteers all contributed to the publicationThe list of projects was very long, and I’m glad to say, we did it all! 

Libba Grace: I was Board Chairman 2010-11. During this time, we worked on the cell phone tour for the African American Burial Grounds section. We also had the informational panels installed in the Slave Square area and in the African American Burial Grounds section. I think we did a good job telling the story.

Donna Barwick: When I became Chair, the cemetery had already undertaken the renovation where it was separated into areas and had prioritized which area to tackle first. The Board typically lets the staff take the lead on what is needed to be done next.

What challenges did you face as Chair of the Board, and how did you overcome those challenges?

MBH: I had never been chairman of anything before, and there I was three months into being Chairman of the Historic Oakland Foundation when the tornado hit [on March 14, 2008]. Our Board got thrown into meetings with FEMA, GEMA, lawyers, and the state historical department. I learned so much during that time – and it worked. They all came to our rescue and put the place back together. I call that time Gone With The Wind meets The Wizard Of Oz, or maybe [General] Sherman’s second coming.

LG: One spring evening in 2006, I had stayed late at the cemetery to finish something. Everyone else had already left. As I headed to my car, I spotted a man who had parked near my car and was standing with his back to me. Well, he turned out to be a very nice person and one that was very helpful to Oakland. His name was George Hooks, and he was a state senator from Americus. George said he liked to come out to Oakland and walk when the legislature was in session. He had restored the cemetery in Americus, which was also named Oakland. He brought his scrapbook to show us their work. George and [then Executive Director] David Moore became friends, and he helped us immensely when the tornado of 2008 roared through Oakland. Senator Hooks assisted us in finding people to help clean up afterwards. Oakland was closed for three months while we cleared the debris.  

DB: People may not know that Oakland Cemetery is a city park. The Foundation has to get permits to do anything, and that’s always part of the challenge. I think it was good that we had Valerie Jackson’s [business executive, philanthropist, and wife of Mayor Maynard Jackson] help in creating and installing Mayor Jackson’s monument, as well as her help in communicating with the city.

How has Oakland Cemetery changed since your time as Chair?

LG: At the time when I was interim director, the employees were DL Henderson, Mary Woodlan (part-time), Kevin Kuharic, Dustin Hornsby, and me. Today, Oakland has more than 25 employees! 

MBH: There are a lot more visitors to Oakland Cemetery. A lot has changed aesthetically – there’s a lot more planting and restoration. But I would say the main thing that’s changed is the area around Oakland Cemetery and I hope that we can take a little bit of credit for that.

DB: It’s good that Oakland is more popular and that more people are taking care of it, because it used to be a place that people didn’t want to go. I think the cemetery is better kept, and there aren’t as many rough areas. Opening the East Gate and lowering it down to street level has definitely created more foot traffic in the cemetery.

What is your favorite Historic Oakland Foundation event?

DB: I would have to say my favorite is the Halloween tour. All of the Halloween tours are, of course, very popular and bring many people to the cemetery. The tours regularly sell out, and they’re a great fundraiser for the cemetery. I’m not a runner, so I haven’t done the Run Like Hell, but my daughter has participated and I think that’s also a great event.

MBH: My favorite Foundation event is the Halloween tours. They’ve been so successful. The success of those tours is owed very much to [former Events Coordinator and Volunteer Director] Mary Woodlan. She put her heart and soul into it and made it great.

LG: [Sharing a story about the origin of the Halloween Tours] In the fall of 2005, Mary Woodlan had just been hired as an Events Coordinator for Oakland Cemetery. She worked three days a week. Oakland Cemetery employee DL Henderson put something on the website about a tour on Halloween. Beau Allen, then Chairman of the Board, came in one afternoon and asked if we’d checked the hits on Oakland’s website. (Of course we had not, because we were busy answering the phones!) Well, we quickly realized that we would be having quite a few people showing up. We got together and made a plan. Mary asked several of the tour guides to come in for the evening. DL, Kevin [Kuharic], and Mary gave tours, along with the extra guides. I stood at the gate with another Oakland volunteer and collected the money. Tickets were $5. I think we raised $5,000 that first night! Needless to say, Mary got to work on next year’s program and that is how the Oakland Halloween Tours started.

More About Historic Oakland Foundation

Historic Oakland Foundation was established in 1976 as a nonprofit organization. Today, thanks entirely to the support and hard work of donors, volunteers, members, sponsors, and staff, historic Oakland Cemetery welcomes more than 125,000 visitors each year to enjoy guided tours, concerts, award-winning art exhibits, and colorful, serene gardens. Join us as we continue to preserve, protect, share, and enhance Oakland Cemetery well into the future. Visit our website to learn more about Historic Oakland Foundation Board of Trustees and ways you can support Oakland Cemetery.

Megan Hodgkiss, JD, Ph.D., is an Oakland Cemetery tour guide, special events volunteer, and member of Historic Oakland Foundation’s Board of Trustees. When she is not volunteering with Oakland Cemetery, Megan is the CEO and Principal Writer of Hodgkiss Consulting LLC. She works on content marketing and copywriting projects for law firms, businesses, and nonprofit organizations across the US.


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