Early city officials purchased six acres in 1850 to be a public burial ground for a young-but-fast-growing town of Atlanta. Originally called Atlanta Graveyard or City Burial Place, this was the beginning of Oakland Cemetery. It was officially renamed in 1872. By then it had expanded to 48 acres, mainly due to pressures of the Civil War. In the late 19th century, families tended the plots of loved ones, creating an assortment of lovely gardens. Oakland became a popular destination for Sunday carriage rides and picnics.
As the 20th Century unfolded, Oakland increasingly was surrounded by residential and industrial development. With the passage of time, many graves went unattended as descendants moved away or lost touch with their antecedents. After years of deferred maintenance and budgetary shortfalls, Oakland became a deteriorating landscape of weed-choked lots and neglected monuments.
In 1976, Oakland Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and experience a renewal of interest and attention from a “friends” that would eventually take over much of the restoration and maintenance of the cemetery and become the Historic Oakland Foundation.
Through restoration projects, fundraising, willpower, and imagination, Oakland Cemetery and its stories have been saved from obscurity. Today, the cemetery welcomes 105,000 visitors a year who stroll the lush, peaceful grounds, attend a tour or special event, and come to treasure, not just the cemetery, but also Atlanta’s rich history.
Oakland Cemetery 1849 to Today
Original Six Acres1849
In 1849 a committee of Atlanta leaders formed to find a suitable site for a city graveyard. The group oversaw the purchase of six acres for a small cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The burial space was originally known as Atlanta Cemetery or City Cemetery.
The cemetery reaches its present size of 48 acres.1867
The cemetery reaches its present size of 48 acres.
The cemetery is renamed Oakland Cemetery.1872
The cemetery is renamed Oakland Cemetery.
Confederate obelisk unveiled1874
Confederate obelisk unveiled.
Sale of lots discontinued1884
The last burial sites are sold.
Lion of Atlanta erected1894
Lion of Atlanta erected.
Oakland Avenue Entrance Gate Constructed1896
The entrance gate is constructed at Oakland Avenue.
Bell Tower completed1900
Bell Tower by architect G. W. Smith completed.
Comfort stations constructed1908
Oakland’s men’s and women’s comfort stations constructed.
City Council dissolves the Cemetery Committee and cemetery is moved to Parks Department1932
City Council dissolves the Cemetery Committee and cemetery is moved to Parks Department.
From 1936 into the 1970s the cemetery falls into disrepair.1936
From 1936 into the 1970s the cemetery falls into disrepair.
Oakland Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.1976
Oakland Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was authored by Diana Combs, a doctoral candidate at Emory specializing in Oakland’s history and iconography.
Historic Oakland Cemetery, Inc., a non-profit “friends of Oakland” organization, is founded.1976
Historic Oakland Cemetery, Inc., a non-profit “friends of Oakland” organization, is founded by City of Atlanta Historian Franklin Garrett; Emory physician, Louis J. Elsas, M.D. and his brother Alan; Clark College professor Dr. Alexa Henderson; Mrs. W. Perrin Nicholson, a member of the Atlanta Chapter of the Victorian Society in America; Atlanta Historical Society staffer Lil Salter; Mrs. Dorothy Spence, a member of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; Marion Combs, Assistant Dean of the Emory Graduate School, and his wife, Diana Combs. It is renamed Historic Oakland Foundation in 1994.
First Sunday in the Park Birthday Celebration1978
The first Sunday in the Park in September of 1978 was a celebration of Oakland’s 128th anniversary by the young cemetery friends group that later became Historic Oakland Foundation. It was hosted jointly by the Atlanta Bureau of Parks and Recreation. The modest crowd of visitors enjoyed touring the cemetery, listening to bagpipe music, and hearing about upcoming and current restoration efforts at the cemetery. Forty years later, the Sunday in the Park celebration continues welcoming quite a few more visitors – more than 3,000 in 2018 – who enjoy food trucks, music, living history performances, a scavenger hunt, and more. Above: A carriage tour at the 1989 Sunday in the Park.
First master plan completed1984
First master plan completed.
Begins offering weekend tours of Oakland Cemetery1986
In partnership with the Atlanta Preservation Center, Historic Oakland Foundation begins offering weekend tours of Oakland Cemetery.
Restoration of Visitor Center and perimeter wall by the city.1997
1997-1999 Restoration of Visitor Center and perimeter wall by the city.
Capturing the Spirit of Halloween2006
Cemeteries are popular places to visit around Halloween. To respond to community interest for a Halloween event while remaining true to HOF’s mission of sharing the cemetery with the community, a tour was created to “enlighten, not frighten.” The first Capturing the Spirit tours in 2006 were held to great acclaim. Costumed volunteers told the stories of notable Oakland residents throughout the cemetery after dusk. Word about the event spread quickly and the following year due to popularity HOF had to turn visitors away at the gate. The first tickets were sold in 2008, and the event has sold out every year since. Additional tour nights were added in 2018.
Purchase of two and a half acres outside west entrance, first land acquisition since 18672007
Purchase of two and a half acres outside west entrance, the first land acquisition since 1867.
Tornado hits Oakland2008
On March 14, a tornado tears through downtown Atlanta and strikes Oakland Cemetery. The tornado destroys monuments, uproots over 110 trees, and litters the cemetery grounds with debris. The storm causes an estimated $2.5 million in damages.
Digital Data Capture digitizes Oakland’s burial records.2009
Digital Data Capture digitizes Oakland’s burial records.
Tunes from the Tombs Music Festival2011
The first annual Tunes from the Tombs music festival in May 2011 was a two-day affair with more than 100 acts playing on multiple stages throughout the grounds.
Debut of “African American Voices” cell phone tour.2011
Debut of “African American Voices” cell phone tour.
3-D image aerial map of the cemetery is completed.2011
3-D image aerial map of the cemetery is completed.
Beaumont Allen Greenhouse Opens2015
Historic Oakland Foundation opens the Beaumont Allen Greenhouse after raising funds and restoring function to Oakland Cemetery’s Historic greenhouse complex.
First Victorian Holiday at Oakland Celebration2015
The first annual Victorian Holiday tour included five mausoleums and welcomed just under 300 visitors. Santa was on hand, as well.
Bell Tower meeting room dedicated as the Bobby Jones Room.2016
Bell Tower meeting room dedicated as the Bobby Jones Room.
Women’s Comfort Station Restoration2018
The Women’s Comfort Station is a small, single-room structure located near the Jewish Grounds at Oakland Cemetery. It was constructed in 1908 (along with a nearly identical men’s comfort station near Potter’s Field) as a restroom and place of refuge from rain or excessive sunlight. The Women’s Comfort Station has sat vacant for roughly 50 years, deteriorating from weather and neglect. After restoration, our hope is to turn the building into a revolving exhibit for panels about the history of Atlanta and Oakland.