Oakland Cemetery’s Dr. Martin Luther King National Day of Service was beautiful. The sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures made Oakland Cemetery’s first volunteer monument cleaning event very enjoyable.
Over the course of two shifts, just short of 30 individuals from local universities, communities, and businesses managed to clean 68 monuments. Thirty-nine of these were in the cemetery’s African American Grounds, a 3.5-acre area that is home to many notable Atlantans, including Dr. Beatrice Thompson and Carrie Steele Logan.
The work in this section was done utilizing the gentlest means possible. A demonstration of proper and safe cleaning techniques was provided before volunteers were allowed to choose from stones in this section. Stones ranged from very large granite family monuments to small, handmade concrete tombstones. Volunteers used soft plastic bristle and horse-hair brushes of various sizes, fresh water, and a non-ionic detergent called D2 Biological Solution. Some of the stones, being made of old and fragile marble, were cleaned using extremely gently brushing with water and D2. Some stones, being too old and unstable, were restricted from this cleaning program and will be taken care of by Oakland’s trained restoration staff.
One of the recently-revived headstones is that of Rev. Rufus H. Houston, which bears the following epitaph: “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Psalm 37:37).
Houston’s grave marker resembles a lectern like those found in the pulpit of a church. The slanted top of the marker holds a book or Bible, an appropriate symbol of Houston’s calling to the ministry. Houston was born enslaved in Savannah in 1845 but spent his early life in Athens, Georgia. At age 11, he was sold away from his parents and remained separated from his family until slavery was abolished.
By the close of the Civil War Houston had almost nothing, but he had managed to earn and save $6 in silver. Like thousands of freed slaves, he relocated to Atlanta seeking a better way of life. He continued to save his earnings and opened an account in the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. When the bank closed in 1874, Houston and tens of thousands of African Americans (who had mistakenly believed their money was insured by the federal government) were devastated to learn they had lost their entire savings.
Two years later, Houston suffered an even greater loss when his wife Frances died in 1876. Houston worked as a laborer, then as a domestic servant, continuing to live on a small portion of his earnings while rebuilding his savings. Though he would eventually work for the U.S. Post Office at an annual salary of $450, the satisfaction of accumulating money was never enough for Houston. For years, he had aspired to be a minister, and for that he felt he needed an education. Because he could not go to school during the day and continue to work, he hired a tutor.
When the Storrs School began offering night classes, he was able to attend school for the first time in his life. In 1882, he married his second wife, Laura Boyd, a Christian woman who supported his goals. Houston’s years of patient effort—striving, saving, and studying—finally paid off. In 1885, he was ordained as a deacon of Friendship Baptist Church, and in 1890 he was licensed to preach. Houston’s biblical epitaph effectively summarizes his life. He desired to follow a righteous path, living in a bold and courageous manner that others could emulate, and despite the troubles he encountered in his life, he ultimately triumphed. Houston’s journey to the pulpit took him from slavery into freedom, through adversity and sorrow, and brought him from illiteracy to enlightenment to become an educated man of God.
This article is by Dr. DL Henderson. Dr. Henderson is a professional genealogist and Board Trustee at Historic Oakland Foundation.
As HOF begins planning for the African American Grounds hardscape and landscape restoration, community engagement and support is critical. You can make a financial contribution to the restoration project in person at Oakland Cemetery’s Visitors Center & Museum Shop, located at the Bell Tower. Or donate online by clicking here. On the online donation page, be sure to select “African American Section” from the designation drop-down menu. Visit our African American Grounds page to learn about this restoration project in-depth.