African American Grounds

Powerpoint Pics 003Founded in 1850, Oakland Cemetery is Atlanta’s oldest municipal burial ground. The 48-acre 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.”)

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 for a technologically-advanced survey of the three acres comprising Oakland’s African American grounds.

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 result of the survey found some 872 probable unmarked burials in the African-American section. HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team will cross-reference the flagged locations with the cemetery’s burial records to verify the data.

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.


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: