“Working within the color line established by the white majority in the aftermath of the Civil War, a number of the black Atlantans buried in [the African-American] section are notable for the remarkable contributions they made in business, education, social service, religion, and other areas.” — Ren and Helen Davis, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History & Guide
Discover even more of Oakland Cemetery’s connection to Atlanta’s and America’s African American history this February. Throughout Black History Month Historic Oakland Cemetery offers complimentary guided tours offered in partnership with the City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation. For more details, click here.
There are even more ways to connect with Oakland’s African American Grounds year-round:
- In 2017, Historic Oakland Foundation kicks off a large-scale restoration of the African American Grounds. The Foundation wants to connect with those who have family buried in this area, as well as individuals, groups, or organizations who can contribute to our restoration efforts. Learn more by clicking here.
- Get up close and personal with Oakland Cemetery’s history by scheduling a private group tour of the African American Grounds. Perfect for church groups, family reunions, school groups, and more, an expert guide will enlighten and inform your group. Learn more by clicking here.
- Download the official Historic Oakland Cemetery mobile app, available in the App Store and Google Play Store. Explore Oakland Cemetery virtually through the mobile app, which offers over 65 points of interest and features several residents in the African American Grounds.
- On your next visit to Oakland Cemetery, take a free cell phone tour of the African American Grounds. The tour is available for download in the App Store, or can be accessed by dialing the numbers on signs posted throughout the African American Grounds.
- Visit our partner the APEX Museum, where every month is Black History Month!
Below are just a few of the many facts about Oakland Cemetery’s African-American section and the stories found within.
- On February 10, 1853, the first documented African-American burial at Oakland Cemetery took place. A 14-year-old boy named John was laid to rest in what was called “Slave Square.” In place of a surname, John’s owner William Hearing is listed on the document.
- In 1866 and 1867, additional acreage was purchased to expand Oakland Cemetery. Slave Square, the once undesirable parcel in the original six acres’ far eastern end, suddenly became prime real estate for white families. Blacks were no longer buried in the original six acres, but in the back of the newly acquired section next to Potters’ Field.
- More than 12,000 people are buried in Oakland Cemetery’s African-American
section. At the time of burial, many of these graves utilized natural markers like trees, shrubs or wooden crosses, which have not survived the passage of time.
- By 1878, white burials continued to increase and the cemetery had grown so crowded that the City Council ordered the sexton to exhume the bodies from Slave Square and reinter them in the area called the “colored pauper grounds.”
- About 60% of burials in “Slave Square” were youth under 16 years old. Many of the children were stillborn or died in infancy from childhood ailments like croup or whooping cough.
- Dr. Henry Rutherford Butler (1864-1931): Dr. Butler was a popular physician in Atlanta, and partnered with Dr. Thomas Slater to operate the first black-owned pharmacy in Atlanta. Dr. Butler, a member and Grand Master in the Prince Hall Masons, also co-organized the National Medical Association.
- The Graves mausoleum is the only structure of its kind in the African-American section, and is the burial place for Antoine Graves and his family.
- Dr. Thomas Slater (1865-1952): In partnership with Dr. Henry R. Butler, Dr. Slater owned and operated the Gate City drugstore, the first black-owned business of its kind in Atlanta. The store was located on Auburn Avenue. Drs. Slater and Butler, along with 12 other physicians and health practitioners from North Carolina and Tennessee went on to establish the National Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists and Pharmacists. The NACPDP was later renamed the National Medical Association.
- Marie Woolfork Taylor (1893-1960): As a Howard University student, Marie Woolfork Taylor was one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. The sorority, established in 1908, was one of the country’s first Greek-letter sororities for African-Americans.
Selena Sloan Butler (c. 1872-1964): Wife of Dr. Henry R. Butler, Selena organized America’s first parent-teacher association for black families in 1911. In 1919, she established a statewide PTA, and in 1926 the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers. Selena’s organizations did not become unified as one until 1970, but when they did, she was named one of the founders of the national PTA.
- Thomas Askew (c. 1848-1914): Askew was Atlanta’s first African-American photographer, and operated a successful studio from his home on Summit Avenue. W.E.B. Dubois included Askew’s photographs in the American Negro Exhibit at the Exposition Universalle de 1900 in Paris. Unfortunately, Askew’s photographic equipment and negatives were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1917.
- Carrie Steele Logan (1829-1900): Carrie was born into slavery and was orphaned as a young girl. After emancipation, she worked as a maid in the waiting rooms at Union Station, where she saw many children abandoned. In 1886, Carrie let the children play in a boxcar during the day while she worked, and at night she took them to her home at the intersection of Wheat Street and Auburn Avenue. She was eventually able to build a larger facility for children by selling her home, collecting donations from the community and proceeds from her autobiography. The Carrie Steele-Pitts Home continues to serve abused, neglected and orphaned children today, at its third location on Fairborn Road.
- The spaces in the “colored pauper grounds” were divided into lots and sold for $50 a piece.
- Augustus Thompson (1837-1910): Born a slave in Jackson, Miss., Augustus moved to Atlanta after emancipation and opened a small blacksmith shop. In 1871, Thompson organized the St. James Lodge of African-American Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization. An anvil tops his gravestone, which also features three interlinked rings that symbolize Thompson’s connection to the Odd Fellows.
- Dr. Roderick Badger (1834-1890): Dr. Badger was born on his father’s plantation in DeKalb County. Roderick’s father, a prominent dentist, taught his 16-year-old son the trade and in 1856, Roderick set out on his own for Atlanta. Working seven days a week to pay for his equipment, Dr. Badger soon established a practice popular with both black and white patients.
- In 1878, black city leaders petitioned the city for a separate cemetery just for black Atlantans, as Oakland Cemetery continued to grow. The campaign was abandoned for some time, but revived several years later. In 1886, South-View Cemetery was established for black citizens.
- Ollivette Allison (1923-2010): Ollivette Allison served as executive director of the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home from 1976 until 2009. As a 12-year-old, Ollivette and her siblings came to the home after a tragedy disrupted their family. In 1950, after graduating from Spelman College and Atlanta University, she became the home’s first professional social worker. Allison’s distinctive grave marker depicts a mother elephant protecting her young.
- Antoine Graves, Sr. (1862-1941): Antoine was a real estate pioneer in Atlanta and was former principal at Atlanta’s first school for blacks, the Storrs School. He maintained a real estate office in the Kimball Building on Wall Street, a street that was totally occupied by whites at the time. Antoine is noted for having brokered the deal for sale of the land where the state capitol now sits.
- Maynard Jackson (1938-2003): Maynard Jackson won the Atlanta mayoral race in 1973, and was the first African-American to serve as mayor of a major southern city. Mayor Jackson served the city for three nonconsecutive terms, and during his tenure helped strengthen relations between minority-owned and white businesses in the city, improve the police department and enacting public works projects in the city and region.
- Georgia Harris (1845-1920): Along with Catherine Holmes, Georgia Harris is one of two African-American people who are buried in Oakland’s white section. At the request of her employer and with special permission from the City of Atlanta and surrounding lot owners, Harris was laid to rest in the family plot of her longtime employer, the Boyd family.
- A common burial practice in the African-American grounds was to mark the deceased’s grave with the last personal item he or she touched in life.
- Bishop Wesley John Gaines (1840-1912): Bishop Gaines was second pastor of Big Bethel A.M.E. church, and in 1881 founded Morris Brown College in the church’s basement. Although born into slavery, Bishop Gaines mastered the alphabet in one week at age 11 and learned to read and write by studying the Bible.
- Henry Rucker (1852-1924): After emancipation, Henry and his family moved to Atlanta. The former slave became president of Georgia Real Estate Loan and Trust Company, one of two black financial institutions in Atlanta at the time. President McKinley appointed Rucker as an internal revenue collector in Atlanta, and he served in that post from 1897 to 1910. A successful businessman, Rucker was the first black to build a professional building in downtown Atlanta.
- Rev. William Finch (1832-1911): Rev. Finch was one of two blacks to serve on the Atlanta City Council in a Reconstruction-era Atlanta in 1870. As city councilman, Rev. Finch fought for blacks to have public schools and black teachers, as universal education was the hallmark of his campaign.
- Mr. Henrietta Curtis Porter (1877-1948): Mrs. Porter was married to Dr. James Reynolds Porter, a prominent black dentist. In 1913 she organized the Chautauqua Circle, a premiere literary and social club for African-American women.
- Malcolm Claiborne (d. 1870): Malcolm Claiborne was one of 33 black men elected to the Georgia legislature in 1868. These men faced extreme discrimination and persecution in a post-slavery and Reconstruction-era Atlanta. White legislators disputed these appointments and successfully petitioned to have Malcolm and his cohorts removed from their position. Two years after expulsion, Malcolm was shot and killed by Moses Bently, a messenger of the House, during a heated dispute. The exact location of Claiborne’s grave at Oakland Cemetery is unknown.