Eldren Bailey: The Story of a Cemetery Artist
Several inconspicuous headstones can be found in the African American Burial Grounds. They appear to be made of concrete and have bright white plaster fronts. Each stone contains information commonly found on grave markers, like biographical information (names, dates) and simple decoration. But these markers are unique. The names of the funeral homes that handled the deceased, like Hanley, Haugabrooks, Moreland, Cox, and Murdaugh, have been engraved in the stone. These seemingly simple stones hide a fascinating and forgotten part of local and regional art history: the story of Eldren Bailey.
Eldren Mathew Bailey, who went by Eldren, Mathew, and E. M. Bailey, was born in Flovilla, Georgia, on July 17, 1903. His father was a railroad worker. Young Eldren dropped out of school in the third grade and was living in Atlanta by age thirteen. He started his working career on the railroad. According to city directories, Bailey left this line of work by 1929 to become a plasterer. He married his wife, Marjorie, and moved into Marjorie’s family home at 396 Rockwell Street in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. The Bailey family lived in this house for the rest of their lives.
When Bailey was a teenager, he saw drawings made by railroad workers which inspired a lifelong fascination with art. In 1945, Bailey began creating sculptures in his front yard. They were all made of cement and originally brightly colored. His first sculpture depicted the crucifixion, and it has been noted his depiction of Christ bore a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. His most famous piece, titled Dancers, depicted two figures in motion. In honor of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, Bailey recreated Aaron in concrete. He finished the sculpture on the same day Aaron made that historic home run at the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a little less than one mile from Bailey’s front yard.
Many of Bailey’s sculptures used heavy funerary symbolism, particularly the traditions of African Americans and the funeral customs of African cultures. His Guardian Dog is in the style of the Egyptian god of the dead, Anubis. Another sculpture in his garden was an urn, a common symbol found at cemeteries across the country. A woman Bailey knew passed away in the 1970s, and he decided to honor her through his art. Bailey’s resulting sculpture, Pyramid, is heavily inspired by funerary traditions. In African American traditions, visitors leave coins at graves for good luck. Pyramid has many pennies affixed, along with costume jewelry and quartz.
After the death of John F. Kennedy, Bailey designed a monument to him and his legacy. It had a bust of Kennedy with an airplane flying overhead. He mailed his design to the federal government as a plan for an official Kennedy memorial. He did not hear back and decided to create his own version in his yard.
Bailey was not widely known for his art during his lifetime. He had to use his talents in other ways to make money. As early as 1929, Bailey began creating concrete grave markers for African American funeral homes. Many can be found at Oakland Cemetery, historic South-View Cemetery, and are known to be as far away as Cartersville. In addition to the most ubiquitous design, an upright concrete stone with a plaster front, Bailey also created headstones level with the ground. Several custom-made markers by Bailey can be found at South-View Cemetery. The grave of Hattie Alexander, buried at South-View Cemetery in 1929, is one of the oldest known headstones designed by Bailey. When Bailey died, his two nephews took over their uncle’s gravestone business.
Bailey worked with several funeral homes across Atlanta: Hanley Funeral Home, Haugabrooks Funeral Home, Murdaugh Brothers Funeral Home, Moreland Funeral Home, Cox Brothers Funeral Home, and Ivey Brothers Funeral Home (now Carl M. Williams Funeral Directors). Other cemeteries have grave markers made by Bailey from Eppinger and Brothers, Sellers, and McDay Funeral Homes. The many funeral homes Eldren Bailey worked with were pillars of Atlanta’s African American communities.
Eldren Bailey suffered a fatal heart attack on February 19, 1987. A five-foot-tall concrete urn sits next to his plaster gravestone at South-View Cemetery. Though Eldren Bailey was not recognized as a major artist during his lifetime, more have begun to appreciate his work in recent years. Today, museums across the country display his work, including the Rockford Art Museum, the Minneapolis Museum of Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Through his grave markers, Eldren Bailey is connected to the heart of Atlanta’s African American community. His legacy can not only be found at museums like the High Museum of Art but is just as evident in cemeteries across Georgia.
Andrew J. Bramlett is a 15-year-old historian living in Kennesaw, the site of the start of the Great Locomotive Chase. He was elected vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society in 2015. He volunteers at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission, the Kennesaw Parks and Recreation Department, and the Friends of Kennesaw Mountain. In 2018, he won a Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council award for Local History Advocacy because of his work on presentations he gives about the history of the City of Kennesaw, Kennesaw Mountain, and his Kennesaw City Cemetery Walking Tour.
Andrew gives presentations, speaking to civic groups, senior centers, and community groups on a variety of topics ranging from local history to topics that can be used anywhere in the world. More info can be found on his website, ajbramlett.com.
The Atlanta Constitution, March 23, 1938
The Atlanta Constitution, December 14, 1947
The Atlanta Constitution, March 28, 1950
The Atlanta Constitution, May 15, 1985
The Atlanta Constitution, February 21, 1987
The Atlanta Constitution, May 4, 1987
The Atlanta Constitution, December 31, 1988
Mason, Herman. Black Atlanta in the Roaring Twenties
Mason, Herman. African American Life in Dekalb County, 1823 – 1970
Henderson, D L. South-View: An African American City of the Dead