Character Areas and Landmarks
Because it grew in stages over its first few decades, Oakland Cemetery is composed of several distinct areas. From Jewish Flat with its closely spaced markers to Bell Tower Ridge with its impressive mausoleums and grand magnolias to African American Grounds with its graceful grounds and unique vernacular headstones, each of Oakland’s unique character areas speaks to the era in which it developed and of the communities buried there. Each area invites you to explore anew architecture and landscape styles that evoke a sense of a cemetery – and a city – evolving over time.
Original Six Acres
Oakland Cemetery was created in 1850 when the City of Atlanta purchased six acres of land from A. W. Wooding for a new municipal cemetery on the eastern edge of the city. This tract at the lower southwest corner of the current cemetery has become known as the Original Six Acres.
The oldest graves in Oakland are located in this section. One belongs to Agnes Wooding, who was buried on the original site before the land was purchased by the city from her husband. The first person to be directly interred was Dr. James Nissen, a visiting medical doctor who was buried in 1850. His is the oldest public marker in the cemetery.
This section also includes the south public grounds, slave square, and the original public grounds which contained many unmarked graves. The original public grounds functioned, in part, as paupers grounds.
Jewish Flat and Jewish Hill
Jewish Flat and Jewish Hill make up the Jewish Grounds and are along Oakland’s southern border. The land for Jewish Hill was acquired in 1878, and was the second acquisition by a Jewish group in the cemetery. (The Old Jewish Burial Grounds – acquired in 1860 – are a small southeastern portion within the Old Cemetery.)
Levi Cohen, president of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, (today known as The Temple) acquired the lots for Jewish Hill, and planned the site reflecting the assimilation of the old German-Jewish community into the Victorian Atlanta culture of the time. Artistic statuary, more landscaping, and elaborate mausolea stand in contrast to the Jewish Flat immediately to the west.
The Temple acquired land for the Jewish Flat in 1892 and sold a small portion of the new plot to the Ahavath Achim Congregation, which was composed mainly of recent Russian immigrants. The dense placement of grave markers was in keeping with Russian-Jewish tradition and is clearly identifiable by tall headstones located close together. Initially planned with narrow passages, the limited space eventually prevented any formal walkways or aisles as burials filled available space. The gravemarkers, written in Hebrew, stand in contrast to the nearby graves of German Jews, who had largely abandoned the use of Hebrew by the 1890s. Oakland’s three distinctly different Jewish burial areas reflect specific eras and traditions, and speak to the diverse histories of those interred within.
Confederate Burial Grounds
Oakland’s most centrally located character area is the final resting place of approximately 7,000 Confederate soldiers, many of whom are unknown. Following Oakland’s acquisition of additional land, this four-acre portion of the cemetery began its transformation in 1866 by the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association (ALMA). Several hundred of these graves were originally marked by simple painted wooden headboards, then replaced by marble markers with rounded tops in 1890.
Near the center of the Confederate Burial Grounds, Oakland’s tallest monument is a sixty-foot granite obelisk memorial to the Confederate Dead. Erected by the ALMA, the foundation of Stone Mountain granite was laid in 1870, on the day of the funeral of Robert. E. Lee. The monument wasn’t completed and dedicated until Confederate Memorial Day, on April 26, 1874.
Historic African American Burial Grounds
From the inception of Atlanta’s municipal cemetery in 1850, the burial grounds for slaves and free African Americans were, by custom and by law, separate from the other sections of the cemetery. In 1852, soon after Oakland was established, the Atlanta City Council ruled that slaves were to be buried on the eastern extremity of the property, apart from the public burial grounds, and this area became known as Slave Square. As the cemetery expanded over the years, the eastern boundary line moved further east and consequently, the graves of many African Americans were exhumed and moved, some of them twice, to where they now lie in the area adjacent to Paupers Grounds.
Today, the final resting places of African Americans are in the northeastern portion of the cemetery in an area known as the African American Grounds (historically known as the Black Section), partially enclosed by Circle Drive. The paths between the tombstones were not paved with cement or bricks, but lined with brick and filled with chert, cinders, and limestone screenings. There is one mausoleum located in this section, belonging to Antoine Graves, a realtor and educator. The graves of other prominent African Americans in this section include those of Bishop Wesley John Gaines, who founded Morris Brown College; Rev. Frank Quarles, the founder of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary (precursor to Spelman College); and Carrie Steele Logan, who founded the first orphanage for African Americans in Atlanta.
In 1866, the City of Atlanta acquired almost 24 acres of farmland to the east of the cemetery from Lemuel P. Grant, and a section of this land near the southeast corner overlooking Boulevard became known as Rogers Hill. The derivation of the name is unknown, though there are some markers bearing the name Rogers in this section. The new, more appropriate, name is East Hill. It represents the final portion of the cemetery to be developed.
This character area features less tree canopy and more walls than other areas of the cemetery. Grid-like patterns are intercepted by Monument Drive and Old Hunter Street Drive. The landscape changes dramatically north of East Hill, where the topography slopes downward toward the Paupers Grounds. This area contains two former comfort stations which now are closed to the public. The Women’s Comfort Station, which underwent an award-winning restoration in 2019, sits below street level adjacent to the Confederate Burial Grounds. The Men’s Comfort Station lies to the northeast near African American Grounds.
The area now known as Greenhouse Valley lies east of Bell Tower Ridge, bordered on the north and east by Potter’s Field and the African American Grounds. Atlanta’s first greenhouse was erected at Oakland Cemetery in 1870, and over the next few years, two more greenhouses were built to accommodate growth. The third of the three greenhouses built by the City of Atlanta was demolished in the early 1970s.
Also located in this area at one time were stables, a steam plant, coal house, and barn/hayloft. Today, the steam plant and the barn/hayloft remain intact.
Oakland’s current greenhouse was a gift from Buckhead Men’s Garden Club. Coincidentally, the 50-foot by 30-foot aluminum and tempered glass structure was a perfect fit at the ruins of Oakland’s former greenhouse.
Just beyond the African American Grounds to the east, there is a sloping, grassy hillside encompassing approximately six acres, known as Potter’s Field. Among the estimated 7,500 persons interred in this section, many are some of Atlanta’s poorest citizens, indigents, and unknown persons of various races and religions.
However, archaeological investigations in the 1970s suggest that not all of those interred here were from Atlanta’s pauper population and that this area also contains a number of graves of the moderate-to-low income class of Atlanta’s nineteenth-century population. Some of the graves spaced less than a foot apart, were originally marked by wooden headboards, which have deteriorated over time and have disappeared. This area was utilized as a burial place until the mid-1880s. A rectangular monument represents those buried, stating, “A memorial to the citizens of Atlanta who are buried in unmarked graves.”
This area is prone to flooding and contains several large catch basins and a granite swale along the Boulevard stone wall.
Bell Tower Ridge
The highest points in the cemetery are located along a north-south axis known as Bell Tower Ridge, so-called because of the building constructed in 1899 to house a chapel and an office for the cemetery sexton, who lived on the second floor. Before the Bell Tower’s construction, a two-story farmhouse stood on the site. In the summer of 1864, that farmhouse served as headquarters for Confederate commander John B. Hood during the Battle of Atlanta, which was fought to the east of the cemetery on July 22.
Today the Bell Tower, which dominates this section of the cemetery, houses the Visitors’ Center and Museum Shop as well as offices of the sexton and the Historic Oakland Foundation.
Bell Tower ridge is composed entirely of family lots which are larger than those in other sections. Numerous elaborate mausoleums with rich architectural details and built in a variety of styles dominate this landscape. Members of many of Atlanta’s most prominent white families are buried in this area. A monument dedicated to all of Atlanta’s mayors, twenty-seven of whom are buried at Oakland, is also located in this area.
Plan Your Visit
Everything you need to know for your first or next visit to the Historic Oakland Cemetery – how to get here, what you’ll see, and what’s happening this weekend.