The Bittersweet Story of Mt. Olive Cemetery
In the heart of Buckhead lies a piece of history that most residents of this affluent community know nothing about. Mt. Olive Cemetery, located off Pharr Road, is a tiny cemetery on a shrubby hill adjacent to Frankie Allen Park. Few people who visit the park recognize the history of the landscape they are enjoying, and even fewer know there is a cemetery here. Buckhead Heritage Socity (BH), a local nonprofit with a history of cemetery advocacy, in conjunction with Elon Butts Osby, a descendant, wants to change that. They plan to make Mt. Olive Cemetery a site that everyone knows and cares about, and more importantly, a site that helps tell the story of a community that was erased by the thinly veiled racism of mid-century Atlanta.
Mount Olive Methodist Episcopal Church, which once stood beside the cemetery, was founded in 1870 by former enslaved persons who became tenant farmers and domestic servants to white families in what would come to be known as Buckhead. In 1921 a white developer built the Macedonia Park Subdivision, which quickly became a thriving, self-contained Black community. By the 1940s, however, white neighborhoods like Garden Hills had surrounded Macedonia Park. Residents of these neighborhoods petitioned the Board of Fulton County Commissioners to seize and tear down all of the houses of their black neighbors, citing slum-like and unsanitary conditions. This aligned perfectly with the County’s initiative to create more parkland in the Atlanta area. Over the next decade, families were forced out of Macedonia Park through eminent domain. Their homes were demolished and a park was built. Adding insult to injury, the park was named Bagley Park after one of the neighborhood’s affluent Black residents, William Bagley. The Mt. Olive Methodist Episcopal Church was bought for use as a community center.
Today, the only remnant of the Macedonia Park Community is the cemetery, and even that was almost lost.
Today, the only remnant of the Macedonia Park Community is the cemetery, and even that was almost lost. After Macedonia Park residents were displaced, the cemetery was largely ignored by the residents of Buckhead, and it fell into a state of disrepair. No one is certain of the exact number of burials, since most graves are unmarked. A survey in 2005 identified 45 graves, but the actual number is probably much higher.
In 2009, Brandon Marshall, a real estate developer, bought the land containing the cemetery, site unseen. Fulton County had mistakenly categorized the land as “vacant”, and when no taxes were paid on it, they sold it at public auction. When he learned he had just bought a cemetery, Marshall planned to remove and relocate all of the bodies, claiming that the current location was overgrown, and they would be better off elsewhere else. He wanted to build condos. Fortunately, his plans were halted by a lawsuit filed by Elon Butts Osby, Bagley’s granddaughter. Osby was represented pro bono by Wright Mitchell, an attorney and the founder of BH.
It’s hard, tedious work caring for a cemetery like Mt. Olive. But this is not just a cemetery, it is the last piece of a community’s history that had largely been swept under the rug.
The relationship between Osby and BH has brought significant attention to Mt. Olive Cemetery over the past decade. A number of entities have now stepped up to the plate to help, including local arborists, architectural historians, and conservators. Some small-scale preservation work has happened over the years, and regular clean-up days hosted by BH along with Atlanta International School help keep the site from becoming overgrown again. But what Mt. Olive really needs is a long-term maintenance plan that targets tree care and erosion control as well as interpretive signage to help educate visitors to Frankie Allen Park. Currently, BH is enlisting the help of Land Plus Associates, a landscape architecture firm, and Elizabeth Clappin, architectural historian and host of the Tomb with a View podcast, to develop these plans. Although the cemetery is barely ¼ of an acre, this group is putting forth a monumental effort that includes extensively researching the property and reviewing every single death certificate from 1914-1945 in an attempt to identify previously forgotten burials.
It’s hard, tedious work caring for a cemetery like Mt. Olive. But this is not just a cemetery, it is the last piece of a community’s history that had largely been swept under the rug. This site deserves attention and recognition, and above all, respect.
If you would like to help Buckhead Hertitage Society in its care and preservation of Mt. Olive Cemetery, click here.
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