PRO Team Field Notes: African American Grounds Phase 1 Wrap-Up

By Ashley Shares, Preservation Manager

After many months of hard work, the Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team has completed Phase 1 of hardscape restoration in the African American Grounds. Phase 1 encompasses the southernmost portion of the section, roughly one acre of land. The hardscape budget for this section was roughly $70,000. The total budget for all hardscape work is $436,000, and with proper funding Historic Oakland Foundation anticipates completion of the African American Grounds project in the fall of 2019.

Current hardscape restoration progress in the African American Grounds, as of February 2018 (click to enlarge).

Interesting Finds
More than in any other section the PRO Team has worked in at Oakland, we have learned to “expect the unexpected” in the African American Grounds.

When we remove a headstone or monument to even out the soil or pour a new concrete base, we often find fragments of other headstones. Sometimes this is in the form of a marble shard being used to wedge a headstone into place. Other times, the pieces are scattered in the soil, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Unfortunately most of these pieces are small and cannot be linked to any particular grave site. In one case though, we were able to reconstruct enough of a headstone to determine that it belonged to Ophelia Wellborn, a white female buried across Monument Drive in the East Hill section.

How her shattered headstone ended up in the African American Grounds, beneath the very large headstone belonging to Samuel Flood is not known. It is my best guess that her headstone, made of a thin marble tablet, was broken and covered over time. When dirt was needed to fill around the Flood monument, workmen went to the Wellborn plot to get some, scooping up pieces of her headstone in the process.

Other items we find whilst digging around have included pottery and glass shards and historic bricks.

Challenging and rewarding projects
The African American Grounds has fewer retaining walls, smaller headstones, and decidedly less hardscape objects in general than most of the other sections at Oakland. Though this is not to say that we haven’t had our share of challenges and rewarding projects.

Box tombs and ledgers stones are two of the more difficult monument types to repair and re-set, and doing so is quite time-consuming. Ledgers are large slabs (eight feet long by three feet wide, and between two and four inches thick) that are placed at ground level. Over time they usually begin to sink, as soil over a grave shaft subsides.

Ledgers before repair (left) and after (right)

The same occurs with box tombs. Box tombs are composed of four “rails” and a ledger that sits on the top. Luckily for us, all of the box tombs in this section are “low profile”- meaning they only rise up about six inches off the ground. Many box tombs in other parts of Oakland are about two feet tall.

Ashley Shares using a soft mortar to level the rails of a box tomb.

Re-setting either of these items begins with removing the ledger stone by way of padded crowbars and wood blocks. A “rowing” motion is used to slowly move the ledger away from the grave site. If we are working with a box tomb, the ledger stone is placed on top of wood blocks so that the bottom is lifted a few inches off the ground.

Markers before repair (top) and after (bottom)

In the case of a box tomb, the rails are then removed by two individuals and set carefully aside on level ground. The ground where the monument belongs is then prepped. For ledgers, we dig a five-inch deep square hole and pour a four-inch thick concrete footer.

For box tombs, we create a rectangular frame, two inches wider than the width of the rails, and pour concrete four inches thick within that frame. Once the concrete hardens overnight, a thin layer of lime mortar is spread over the concrete and the ledger or the rails are re-set.

For ledgers, we are often able to “row” the ledger back into place without having to use any hoisting equipment. For box tombs, though, the ledger is hoisted back onto the rails using evenly placed nylon straps, a chain hoist, and scaffolding. Box tombs and ledgers can take two or more days to complete sometimes, making them an expensive and intense project. In Phase 1, we completed five box tombs and five ledgers.

We look forward to moving on to Phase 2 of restoration in February.

As HOF begins hardscape and landscape restoration in the African American Grounds, 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.