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PRO Team Field Notes: Uncovering the African American Grounds

by Ashley Shares, Preservation Specialist  

This fall during the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours, Historic Oakland Foundation raised over $7,500 to restore the headstone of two trailblazing women buried in the African American Grounds, Dr. Beatrice Thompson and her sister Estelle.  Dr. Thompson graduated from medical school in 1901 before setting up a practice in Athens, Georgia — a rare accomplishment at the time for a woman, much less a woman of color. During her lifetime Dr. Thompson championed fellow entrepreneurs and invested in Athens’ first African American-owned pharmacy. Dr. Thompson’s sister is buried adjacent to her and was similarly accomplished. Estella Henderson was a lawyer and professor at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.

Flags mark a probable burial in Oakland Cemetery's African American section.
Flags mark a probable burial in Oakland Cemetery’s African American section.

The African American Grounds, a section of Oakland Cemetery located east of the Carriage House and south of Potter’s Field, offers HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team many unique opportunities and challenges in terms of hardscape restoration.

Work is projected to begin in Spring 2017 (funds permitting) and will consist of three phases over three years. We are very excited to begin working here, as there are features in this section not found elsewhere in Oakland Cemetery and there will be plenty of chances to learn firsthand about the customs and funerary traditions of those buried.

One of the most apparent challenges this section poses is the rebuilding of retaining walls. These walls hold back the soil in family plots. Over time, hydrostatic pressure and gravity force the blocks comprising the wall to be pushed outward. Rebuilding these walls can be difficult because in taking them completely apart, we run the risk of grave shafts in the lot collapsing as the surrounding soil is suddenly unsupported. Precautions will be taken to stabilize the soil, define the dimensions of the grave shafts, and rebuild only small sections of the wall at a time to prevent potential disaster.

A second challenge is determining the proper locations for misplaced grave markers. Preliminary research has shown that some headstones are not on their proper lot. Also, records of burials in this section can be confusing and sometimes list the same individual in two different graves. We will be working closely with City of Atlanta Sexton Sam Reed, to figure out how best to proceed in cases like these.

Dr. Thompson's headstone is an example of vernacular funerary architecture.
Dr. Thompson’s headstone is an example of vernacular funerary architecture.

With these challenges comes the equally notable potential for serendipitous discovery. The PRO Team is very enthusiastic about the likelihood of unearthing sunken monuments and “grave goods” on plots previously considered unmarked. African American graves were often marked with household items such as cookware, bottles, plates, and the like or with natural objects like shells. Articles like these are easily lost, but we hope that we may happen upon some.

We are also looking forward to working with unique headstones. An overwhelming majority of headstones in Oakland are marble or granite but the African American Grounds features many hand-cast concrete markers.  Some of these were created by family members of the deceased. Others — like the one adorning Dr. Thompson’s plot — were issued by funeral homes as part of their interment package and were intended to be temporary. Preserving these monuments is extremely important because they represent the link between historical African American funeral homes in Atlanta (such as Cox Brothers) and Oakland Cemetery.

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