African American Grounds

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Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 70,000 people, several thousands of whom are of African American descent. In 1852 the Atlanta City Council ruled that people of color were to be buried separately from whites, in public grounds on the eastern boundary of the cemetery’s Original Six Acres. This section was known as “Slave Square,” and by the beginning of the Civil War held the remains of more than 800 people. In 1866 the city designated three acres of another section in Oakland Cemetery for African American burials only.  In 1877, the remains of those buried in Slave Square were exhumed and reburied in another section of Oakland Cemetery (“the colored pauper grounds.”)

Oakland’s African American Grounds is the final resting place for entrepreneurs, educators, ministers, physicians, and many other prominent citizens who helped to shape the city’s history – as well as ordinary citizens. This area’s notable burials include:

  • Bishop Wesley John Gaines: A former slave, second pastor of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and founder of Morris Brown College.
  • Carrie Steele Logan: A former slave who established the first African American orphanage (The Carrie Steele-Pitts Home) in Atlanta.
  • Reverend Frank Quarles: Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church from 1866-1881. Instrumental in bringing the Augusta Institute (now Morehouse College) to Atlanta and in the founding of Spelman College.
  • Selena Sloan Butler: A Georgia Woman of Achievement and founder of the country’s first Parent Teacher Association for African American children.

Historic African American burial traditions utilized natural markers like wood, shrubbery, or flowers, which have been lost through the passage of time. Therefore, much of this section of Oakland Cemetery is bereft of headstones or other visual markers. To determine what lies beneath, HOF partnered with Atlanta-based remote sensing firm Bigman Geophysical in 2016 for a technologically-advanced survey of the three acres comprising Oakland’s African American Grounds. The survey results found some 872 probable unmarked burials in the section.

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

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

Bigman Geophysical spent several days at Oakland Cemetery, utilizing ground penetrating radar (GPR) and highly-precise GPS. The GPR waves reflect back when encountering a change in the material underground, such as a coffin. The GPR unit displayed a real-time cross-section of what is underground, and surveyors placed a flag on each location that detected a change in material. Those flag locations were then recorded with GPS and the data loaded into software that Bigman Geophysical then interpreted.

The results of the GPR study will allow HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team to begin restoration work in earnest this year. To start, the flagged locations will be cross-referenced with the cemetery’s burial records to verify the data and to help identify descendants. This will also help in determining the proper locations for misplaced grave markers.

Though the area is more sparsely “populated” with grave markers than other areas of the cemetery, there is hardscape restoration to be done to walls, walkways, and the remaining headstones, and HOF estimates the cost at approximately $400,000. Restoration work will be divided into three phases to be completed over three years (or more swiftly as time and budgets permit). Alongside hardscape restoration, HOF staff will also install appropriate landscaping as well as tasteful interpretive signage to further educate the public on our shared history.

Phase 1 will address the southernmost portion of the African American Grounds and will also include work on walkways in the other phase sections. The total cost for Phase 1, beginning in early 2017, is $108,000.

This is a truly unique opportunity for investment in Atlanta’s past and future and we are excited to begin this new project. Financial support from donors like you will make it possible to properly honor these pioneering citizens.

AAbuttonAs 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.

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Historic Oakland Foundation wants to connect with descendants of the thousands of African Americans buried at Oakland Cemetery, and in a larger sense inform the community about this tremendous historic asset. If you are a descendant, please take a moment to share your connects with us, using this short online form.
There is much to learn about Atlanta’s African American pioneers and leaders, and many ways to do so at Oakland Cemetery:
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