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Illuminating The Unmarked Graves Of North Public Grounds

Illuminating The Unmarked Graves of North Public Grounds

Post Series: Illumine 2019

During Illumine we are showcasing just a few of the interesting stories our creative team is shining a light on during this four-day light experience.

The “Public Ground,” known today as “North Public,” was Oakland’s first pauper burial ground for white residents. It was set aside in the spring of 1852 when the “City Grave Yard” was finally properly surveyed. The City fathers realized the method of simply paying to bury a body had led to an unmanageable hodgepodge of burial spots. A system of selling lots for city revenue was in order, as well as providing for the town’s poor, indigent and enslaved.

To provide for the poor and indigent white residents, “Two-thirds of the northwest quarter… for a public burying place” was set aside. The first sexton, Oliver Hazard Perry Conant (1852-1853), was charged with overseeing the burials and paid $3 per interment. But it seems Sexton Conant was not much for record keeping. In 1853, a new Sexton was hired to bring some order to the graveyard’s management, which included greater record keeping. The first burial ledger from Oakland was the work of Sexton Green A. Pilgrim during his tenure of 1853 to 1869.

Sexton Pilgrim’s burial ledger recorded only the burials he was specifically responsible for burying – white residents unable to afford a proper “lot” and those interments in “Slave Square.” His first recorded burial in the Public Ground was on February 2, 1853. He recorded the date of death (or arrival at the cemetery), name of the deceased, age, place of birth, cause of death, and grave location by Section, Row and Grave Number.

The Public Ground as first laid out had North and South sections, of about 19 rows each, with 19 to 32 graves per row. Burials were entered as they were brought for burial. No mention exists in the surviving records or other original sources as to whether the poor received a grave marker of any sort. If so, presumably it would have been by family members, as no mention exists in the City’s financial books of expenditures for grave markers. Interestingly, Sexton Green’s record keeping starts in the middle of the South section, strongly suggesting Sexton Conant had begun using the area early on.

The ledger provides a wealth of epidemiological information as diseases swept through town, taking family members over the span of a week or so, or rampaging through the children of Atlanta. Sadly, family members were not necessarily buried next to each other, so a parent and child may have died in the same week but not be buried side by side.

With the onset of war, Sexton Pilgrim’s record keeping deteriorated. Interestingly, in 1862, a “new” area was opened up; where this was has yet to be determined. When the citizenry was ordered to evacuate Atlanta during the Civil War, the sexton dutifully left as well. Green evacuated in early September 1864, returning to his post in late January of 1865. With the acquisition of new land in 1867 with a new designated paupers’ ground, Sexton Green quickly began interments there in the summer of the same year. The old Public Ground was thus closed.

When the beautification of the cemetery was embarked upon in earnest in the 1870s by Sexton Green’s successors, the Public Ground was eventually brought up to scratch as well. A euonymus hedge was planted around the Ground in 1875 and the area sown with Blue Grass; an abundance of ornamental shrubbery was planted in 1880. The very large oak trees along the main drive were planted around 1897 or 1898.

It is hoped ground penetrating radar can reveal the original layout of the interments and possibly where the additional land was located, and thus begin the process of identifying some of Atlanta’s forgotten early residents.

Illumine runs May 9-12 at Historic Oakland Cemetery. Learn more

Sara L. Van Beck

Sara Van Beck is a member of Historic Oakland Foundation’s gardens team. She is a leading daffodil authority and author of Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733-1940.

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