by Sara L. Van Beck, Garden Historian
Strolling around Oakland today, much of the oldest part of the cemetery appears very open, lacking grave markers of any sort. However, we know from the burial abstracts there are very few actual “open spaces” in the cemetery. So, why do these areas seem so open? What happened?
Back then, as is now, not everyone had the money to spend on a high-cost funeral, an extravagant marble marker, or expensive wrought iron fencing. As can still be found in a few locations at Oakland, some had rough-hewn rocks set on-end for headstones. Others used bricks to outline a grave rather than marble. Some in the African American community used natural markers like plants and flowers, and many Atlantans turned to simple wood.
After the Civil War, Oakland Cemetery as we now know it really began to take shape. The city expanded the cemetery to its present boundaries, and the Confederate dead were collected to be given a permanent burial.
All the land the city bought when it expanded Oakland in 1866-1867 became the “new” cemetery, while the “old” cemetery was what we now call the Original Six Acres and the area just east of the Memorial Drive gate (purchased in 1857). As the city and cemetery staff transformed the old, stodgy City Grave Yard into the picturesque “rural” design we now know, they took it upon themselves to clean up the “old” cemetery to make it more in keeping with the new aesthetic. In the annual report for 1876, the Cemetery Committee reported to the Atlanta City Council that along with planting many new hedges:
“All occupied lots have received careful attention, all the grass, rubbish, and other unsightly matter, such as old wooden enclosures and tumbled down brick tombs have been removed from the cemetery without additional charge to the parties owning such lots.”
Clearing away the old and unsightly continued in 1877, with staff reporting to Council they had removed “all unsightly brick and wooden enclosures” and continued to prune shrubs and hedges into a unified appearance.
In the Original Six Acres near Memorial Drive, one brick barrel vault remains (one also remains in the Confederate section), a likely lone survivor of the old brick tomb burial tradition. With new hedges and decrepit structures gone, Oakland Cemetery had a more open, garden-like atmosphere.
In the same year, the city wanted to make more land available to sell to white citizens. It decreed those buried in Slave Square be moved and the lots re-surveyed and sold. In the process, “those who may have head boards, … may be interred by themselves.” Removing more wooden headboards in the then-African American section and replacing those markers with grand mausolea was seen as an aesthetic improvement.
In 1882 former Sexton Holland was interviewed by the Atlanta Constitution regarding his opinion that a new city cemetery would be needed in the near future. One of the greatest issues at Oakland the Sexton expected to be remedied with a new cemetery was a more regular system of management, which would facilitate finding burials after wooden headboards had rotted away.
By this point, tracking interment locations was exceedingly difficult because many burials could not be accurately located after the wood headboards disintegrated. As the wooden headboards in the Confederate Memorial Grounds were lasting only 10 to 15 years in the Georgia climate, this meant that even burials in the “new cemetery” were now posing challenges. It also belies the finances of many families who didn’t have the means to replace the headboards with permanent stone markers. In a newspaper article later the same year, a reporter speaks of his visit to the pauper graves, remarking on the plain boards for some of the dead, while looking up the hill at the granite and marble memorials of Atlanta’s more affluent citizenry.
Oakland’s sole remaining wood headboard resides in the “new” cemetery but not in the African American Grounds. A professional conservator queried about the board suggests it was made of either yellow pine or cypress. Perchance its survival can be attributed to the luck of a protected, well-drained location (mitigating against light exposure and rot) and the use of a highly rot-resistant wood.
All reflect the tradition that wood headboards were widely used for decades by the less affluent citizens of Atlanta, both white and black, and that the Oakland of old was a very different place than the open, rolling garden we admire today.