Oakland Cemetery’s Early Landscapes: Researching and Re-Landscaping the African American Grounds

As part of Historic Oakland Foundation’s Master Plan, an administrative history timeline was researched, which has provided a written backdrop of clues and inferred explanations to Oakland’s landscape tapestry. A series of short articles will trace changes to some of Oakland’s most important elements that shape our experience of the cemetery today.

by Sara Van Beck

One of the past year’s landscape restoration projects at Oakland has been the southern portion of the African American Grounds. As with all restoration projects, garden history research on the area and its families was conducted to guide the design. Historical observations of Oakland’s trees, shrubs, and flowers were relatively infrequent and then short on the sort of specific detail one would like for landscape restoration. A handful of period photographs provide the basis for the majority of the areas of the cemetery where whites are buried. Unfortunately, photographs of the African American Grounds are not to be had. There are more photographs and newspaper articles addressing Potter’s Field and its indigent burials than records addressing the section where wealthier African Americans paid to be buried. Thus, other historical sources must be used to provide inferences for how families landscaped African American Grounds.

Other historic African American cemeteries provide some general landscape data. Turning to Atlanta’s South-View Cemetery for comparison, exceedingly little appears in the local newspapers. Since its 1886 founding until the early 1900s, South-View appears in only one article in The Constitution. Published in 1895, the newspaper article details a cemetery of strong contrasts. Some areas near South-View’s front gates were well-tended by loving hands; loved ones were commemorated by marble markers, but no mention was made of planted shrubs or flowers. However, according to the article, large areas of the cemetery were quite mournful, suggestive of neglect if not abandonment, ornamented only by weeds and decaying floral arrangements.

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ photograph of an unidentified Georgia cemetery.

What the “well cared-for” lots marked by handsome marble may have looked like comes by way of an unidentified Georgia cemetery at the close of the 19th century. W.E.B. Du Bois took the photo for his “American Negro” exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Through more than 360 photographs, the exhibit showcased the everyday lives of black Georgians at the turn of the century; Oakland resident Thomas Askew was among the photographers whose work was included in “American Negro.”

Dr. DuBois’ photograph reveals a tidy, small cemetery enclosed by a whitewashed wood fence, with understory trees scattered throughout. A few lots are either bordered by low hedges or ornamented by small shrubs, in keeping with the general landscape aesthetic found at smaller cemeteries of the period.

The first guidepost of information for Oakland’s African American families appears in the new Cemetery Commission’s report to the City Council in 1907. Coming at a time when the newly appointed Commission chair was strongly determined to overhaul the cemetery, he was quite pleased to report that the African American “portion of the cemetery was in a most unsightly condition, but it has been greatly improved and now presents a decent appearance to the great gratification of the families, who are taking an interest in the cemetery for the first time, and are expressing a desire to beautify their ground.”

While seemingly late, this coincides with the rise of a financially well-off black middle class in Atlanta. It may simply have taken this long for families to have the wherewithal to spend money on cemetery plants, or for ornamental gardening to become a pastime in the community. The chairman’s statement and this timeframe of the early 1900s then become the starting point for landscape research on how the African American families at Oakland may have landscaped their lots, their aesthetic tastes and plant preferences.

Regarding landscape preferences in Atlanta’s black community in the early 1900s, tidbits peek from the pages of The Constitution, but the real touchstone comes from a study by Atlanta University students led by W.E.B. Du Bois.

A c. 1899 photograph of Bishop Holsey’s house. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As most of Atlanta’s black community was not well-off, vegetable and ornamental gardening was a luxurious pursuit for the few, or at least not on the minds of many. In 1900 it was estimated that 60 percent of Atlanta’s black community resided in structures without a yard. Yet in 1903, an article in The Constitution penned by Oakland resident and physician Henry Rutherford Butler encouraged the community to do just that, garden: “Let us then dig up our gardens and plant them. Plant flowers in our front yards…. I saw Bishop H. M. Turner working in his garden last Wednesday. Bishop L. H. Holsey, on Auburn avenue [sic], has the finest garden in Atlanta, without any exception. He spends much of his time at home in his garden. The example set by these men should inspire many other men who are younger and who have much more time than they.”

In the Library of Congress’ collection is a circa 1899 photograph of Bishop Holsey’s house. Dominating the small front yard are two ornamental circular flower beds with tall plants in the centers. Three years earlier, Dr. Butler had encouraged South-View lot owners to keep their relatives’ graves “clean and green.” It is tempting to speculate that Dr. Butler may have indulged in ornamental gardening along with Bishop Holsey.

A 1908 photo of a vine-encased family home, taken from Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ photo survey.

Another set of clues come from two “human interest” pieces on Carrie Steele, locally renowned for her work with Atlanta’s black orphans. An 1888 article describes her domicile:

“There’s a pretty little cottage on the corner of Wheat and Calhoun streets. There are vines around the porch, and even in this December weather a few violets and some late chrysanthemums still linger in the neat little garden.”

Vines were a favorite way for southerners to provide cooling shade, as shade trees were rarely planted close to the house. A number of photographs documenting Atlanta’s slum row houses – with not a tree to be seen – show one or two domiciles with vine-engulfed porches. Too, chrysanthemums were becoming wildly popular in Atlanta by this time. A number of the town’s wealthiest were erecting greenhouses to grow their favorite flower in abundance, with the first chrysanthemum flower show held at the Capitol rotunda in 1889.

In 1890, with donations from many in town, Mrs. Steele leased a parcel of land from the city and erected an orphanage. A second article in 1897 focused more on the orphans themselves and their lives under Mrs. Steele’s wing. The piece mentions the children working in the vegetable garden, “while the majority climb the cherry trees after the luscious fruit or hid in the grape vines…”

Details on how those in the community gardened can be gleaned from a sociological study of Atlanta’s African Americans, conducted by the students of Atlanta University in 1907-1908. Published in 1908, The Negro American Family included a strong component on the city’s housing conditions for blacks, from Atlanta’s very poorest to its wealthiest members. As part of the study, the students engaged in a representative sampling survey of 32 residences and in-depth surveying of eight residences, even noting the condition of the front yards. Of the eight houses, one had flowers, a second had flower beds divided by cleanly swept walks, and a third had a rose bush and a peach tree. The survey is accompanied by 32 photographs by W.E.B. DuBois, depicting houses around town and illustrating everything from row house slums to simple cottages to the grandest house in town. While a number of Dr. DuBois’ photographs illustrate a few houses with front yard gardens, there’s no information recorded as to what these gardeners grew.

To infer what gardeners may have grown, an interesting book provides some hints. The Negro School and its Relation to the Community, published in 1915 by the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, is an amazingly comprehensive reference and guide to building and operating a school where no such community resource exists. Among other topics addressed are how to plant ornamental flower beds, landscape designs for the teacher’s residence, use of spring bulbs to line the school walks, and vines for fences and front porches. Hedges were to divide work and play areas on the school grounds and ornament the teacher’s cottage, although the recommended Chinese privet and Macartney rose are some of the most invasive plants in the south today.

1915 photo of the teacher’s cottage.

The ornamental gardening recommendations were simple. The flower bed was to be circular, set in the front lawn, and composed of two varieties. A tall plant was to dominate the bed for summer flowering, such as cannas or oleanders. A lower flower such as lantana was to edge the bed for contrasting color, as it was noted: “Border planting for flowers is becoming quite popular.” Flower beds could similarly be made of just spring bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and lilies, while “Vincas are among the best bloomers, and can be used for the entire bed or borders.” Winter flower beds could be planted of pansies, petunias, and creeping phlox. For border beds along fences or open lawn, shasta daisies and bananas were an option. Shrubs were to be planted around the edges of the open lawn or as anchor specimen plants to the teacher’s cottage. Suitable varieties included crepe myrtle, wild crab apple, sweet shrub, azalea, hydrangea, calico bush (a type of mountain laurel), roses, and Grancy Gray Beard. Native trees could be dug from nearby forests such as dogwood and wild plum. Granted, the recommended plants lists are tailored for a warmer climate than Atlanta’s, they nevertheless provide further insight as to how the southern African American community may have been guided in ornamental gardening and what a suitable plant palate would be.

One of the last pieces of evidence to be researched was the 1949 aerial photograph series of the City of Atlanta. Digitized by Georgia State University, this high-resolution image captured a number of trees and shrubs in Oakland’s African American Grounds, and hints at other landscape elements. The lack of large tree cover in the southern portion was particularly fortuitous for not obscuring smaller ornamental plantings. Combined with a bulb survey of Oakland conducted in 2003, which found numerous lots with surviving daffodils delineating lot lines and gracing headstones, an informed rough picture of the family-planted landscape as it appeared in 1949 was reached.

Yet time stands still for no gardener. Additional burials have been added since 1949; some trees grew mightily, casting shade; a few died; and many of the bulbs surviving in 2003 continued to dwindle. Armed with newspaper articles, period photographs, reference books, and surviving family plants, an inspired re-envisioning of the southern area of the African American Ground’s landscape has been embarked upon. While the landscape restoration plan draws upon the available direct evidence and inferred guideposts, long-term maintenance needs and current landscape conditions have tempered the plant variety selections.

Carrie Steele Logan’s grave marker today.

Where possible, original hedge lines shown in the 1949 aerial have been re-created. The design motifs suggested in the Tuskegee Institute’s guide have been incorporated along with some of the suggested plants. Other plants used follow from the surviving plants on the African American Grounds (such as daffodils and glossy abelia shrubs), from other areas of the cemetery (such as boxwood and curly ligustrum for hedges), and  from plants described in newspaper articles.

Thus, Carrie Steele’s old-fashioned yard chrysanthemums are scattered about, either as cradle plantings or as borders. Large circles of daffodils are intermixed with daylilies for spring and summer interest, while annuals such as pansies provide spots of winter color. A nearby weeping cherry keeps Ms. Steele company, daffodils fringe walkways and lots, and hydrangeas flank headstones. Vinca minor, often called “cemetery myrtle,” has been introduced in shaded spots to help control erosion as well as enliven what was once open dirt. Thanks to the numerous volunteers and donors who have contributed their financial resources and hard sweat equity, a new, inspired garden spot is being created for Oakland and its African American families. With continued support to expand restoration efforts, the African American Grounds will bloom for years to come.

Sara Van Beck is a member of Historic Oakland Foundation’s gardens team. She is a leading daffodil authority and author of Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733-1940.

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.

Learn more about the African American Grounds and much more at Oakland’s guided overview tour, “Sights, Symbols, and Stories of Oakland,” offered every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Throughout February HOF offers free guided tours of the African American Grounds, click here for details.

Historic Oakland Cemetery focuses on African American Grounds restoration on Georgia Gives Day

Deborah Strahorn portrays Myra Miller at Capturing the Spirit of Oakland 2017

On Tuesday, Nov. 28 Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) joins non-profit organizations across the state for Georgia Gives Day. On this statewide day of online giving, HOF has a goal to raise $5,000 in support of its ongoing restoration project in the African American Grounds.

The 3.5-acre area in Oakland Cemetery has not undergone a large-scale restoration in more than 100 years. HOF requires approximately $400,000 to fully restore the area, which will undergo both hardscape and landscape repairs. To date HOF has received generous gifts from individuals, foundations, and corporations including Georgia-Pacific Foundation and Georgia Power Foundation, Inc.

The African American Grounds restoration project began this January, six months after HOF completed a ground-penetrating radar survey of the area. Historically, 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 American Grounds. That survey found nearly 900 probable unmarked burials in the area.

During the recent Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours – held over two weekends in October – HOF raised more than $9,000 for the African American Grounds, thanks to attendees who donated after hearing the story of Oakland resident Myra Miller.

Born a slave in 1811, Miller was among the 10 residents featured on this year’s tours. Miller and her husband moved to Atlanta in the mid-1870s, and she established herself as one of the city’s finest and most sought-after bakers. Miller owned and operated a bakery in downtown Atlanta, and wedding cakes were her specialty.

Capturing the Spirit of Oakland is HOF’s largest annual fundraiser, bringing more than 7,000 visitors through the cemetery’s gates over seven nights. This year’s donations for the African American Grounds broke HOF records.

In 2016 Capturing the Spirit of Oakland attendees donated more than $7,500 to the African American Grounds. The tours featuredDr. Beatrice Thompson, who graduated from medical school in 1901 before setting up a practice in Athens, Ga. During her lifetime Dr. Thompson championed fellow entrepreneurs and invested in Athens’ first black-owned pharmacy.

“Supporting Oakland Cemetery on Georgia Gives Day makes it possible for us to restore and maintain this treasured area, as the families originally intended,” said HOF Executive Director David Moore. “Our Foundation works every day to keep Atlanta’s history alive through a diverse range of programming and projects, and community support is critical to our success.”

PRO Team Field Notes: The Flood Family Lot

by Dr. DL Henderson and Ashley Shares

Flood family plot before restoration (top) and after (bottom).

Flood family plot before restoration (top) and after (bottom).

This month the Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team has restored Lot 2 of Block 70 in the African American Grounds. Block 70 is located east of the Confederate Obelisk on the north side of Monument Drive. Work on this lot consisted of: leveling and resetting a medium-sized marble obelisk belonging to Henrietta Flood; a medium marble “cross and base” monument belonging to Samuel Flood; and a small marble marker that bears no inscription but is possibly a headstone belonging to James Flood, who died in 1940. Additionally, the PRO Team reset marble coping on the west and south sides.

To reset the two medium-sized markers, we removed them piece-by-piece using a chain hoist and nylon strapping. The existing below-ground bases (made of brick and concrete, respectively) were intact and nearly level. We reused these pieces, along with a bed of compacted gravel to facilitate drainage away from the markers.

The coping on the west side of the lot had sunken severely. To remedy this, the PRO Team dug out and removed the three differently-sized pieces, then tightly compacted the soil and laid and a bed of gravel. The coping on the south side, which sits on a concrete parged* wall, was loose and out of alignment. A parged wall refers to a wall, in this case brick, where the entire surface of the multi-unit structural system is covered in a smooth layer of cement to mimic the appearance of one solid surface.

We reset the pieces on thin beds of type-N mortar. Type-N mortar is preferred for soft stone masonry because it withstands severe weather conditions and heat. By using this mortar, we’ve ensured that the coping will stay put for years to come.

Flood family plot coping after restoration.

Flood family plot coping after restoration.

In concert with the plot restoration, we delved deeper into the Flood family records to put history behind the names. Only months before his death in September 1905, Samuel Flood wrote his last will and testament. He arranged for payment of all his debts and made specific monetary bequests to relatives. An issue of special importance to Samuel was his grave marker and the care of his cemetery lot. He left explicit instructions in his will to ensure his final wishes were carried out.

Samuel, a carpenter, suffered the loss of his wife Henrietta, in 1881. He buried her at Oakland, and her grave is marked by a marble monument featuring a cross-vaulted top. The couple had no children of their own, but Samuel left his estate to his niece and nephews. He gave the bulk of his assets to his oldest nephew, Charlie Flood. Samuel also bequeathed to Charlie the responsibility of making his funeral arrangements, buying his tombstone, and taking care of the Flood family lot at Oakland.

Samuel was particular about the cost of his grave marker. The will specifically requested that Charlie purchase a tombstone at a cost “not less than $100 and not more than $150.” For this price in 1905, Charlie would have been able to choose from a wide selection of quality gravestones. The marble tombstone over Samuel Flood’s grave bears a cross with the inscription, “In Loving Memory of My Uncle.” In addition, Samuel recognized that his childlessness, and the lack of perpetual care at Oakland, might leave his grave untended. His will also directed Charlie to keep the Flood family lot “in good repairs and condition.”

Samuel Flood marker (detail). Courtesy Linda Ferree, Findagrave

Samuel Flood marker (detail). Courtesy Linda Ferree, Findagrave.com.

Charlie Flood died in 1925 and was buried in his uncle’s lot, but it is unknown if other family members cared for the lot after his death. For Samuel Flood, the preservation of his cemetery lot was an important family duty, but over the years, as descendants have moved away or lost contact, many lots at Oakland have gone untended. Today, the Flood family lot is being restored to good condition as part of the African American Grounds restoration project.

Dr. DL Henderson is a professional genealogist and Board Trustee at Historic Oakland Foundation.

Ashley Shares is Preservation Manager at Historic Oakland Foundation.


As 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. Visit our African American Grounds page to learn about this restoration project in-depth. 


Restoration work begins in Oakland Cemetery’s African American Grounds

Volunteer LaDoris Davis portrayed Dr. Beatrice Thompson during Capturing the Spirit of Oakland.

Volunteer LaDoris Davis portrayed Dr. Beatrice Thompson during Capturing the Spirit of Oakland.

Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) has a goal to completely restore Oakland Cemetery’s historic African American Grounds, and is now one step closer. This month HOF will finish a restoration project at the final resting place of one of Georgia’s first black female doctors.

Last October during the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours, attendees donated a record-breaking $7,500 to help restore the final resting place of Dr. Beatrice Thompson and her sister Estella Henderson. Dr. Thompson graduated from medical school in 1901 before establishing a practice in Athens, Ga., a rare accomplishment at the time for a woman, much less a woman of color. Estella Henderson is buried next to her sister and was similarly accomplished as a lawyer and professor at Morris Brown College.

“This year we begin a concerted focus on restoring the African American Grounds and the work on the Thompson lot is a monumental first step for the Foundation. We want to keep the momentum around this project going and in order to do so, we need support in the form of both community involvement and financial backing from public and private donors,” said David Moore, executive director at HOF.

An additional $300,000 is needed to complete the African American Grounds restoration project.

The Thompson lot contains nine recorded burials, four of which have monuments associated with them. HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team restored each of these monuments, which were uneven, broken, and unstable due to the passage of time. HOF’s gardens team will in turn improve the lot with period-appropriate landscaping.

A new headstone will be erected for Dr. Thompson and her husband, Sidney J. Thompson, who was a probation officer with the Fulton County juvenile court and founder of the first Atlanta Boys’ Club. The markers will be laid at a private dedication ceremony in the spring.

On Monday, Jan. 16 HOF commemorates the Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service with a volunteer opportunity at Oakland Cemetery. From 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., individual and group volunteers are invited to join the gardens team, which will have a number of landscaping tasks throughout Oakland’s 48 acres, including headstone cleaning in the African American Grounds. All skill levels are welcome, but an RSVP is required in advance. Throughout February, HOF will offer free guided walking tours of the African American Grounds during Black History Month.

Historic Oakland Foundation identifies unmarked burials in Oakland Cemetery’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.

Preparing for its next phase of restoration, Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) recently conducted a geophysical survey of the African-American section in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta’s oldest municipal burial ground.

“HOF is spending a large part of 2016 researching and preparing to work in the African-American section next year,” said Neale Nickels, director of preservation at HOF. “We are gathering community support and interest and hope that in addition to a restoration of the hardscape and landscape, we will be able to add to our already well-rounded educational programming.”

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.

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.

“The power of this protection program at Oakland is that it illustrates just how much is there. We are happy that we could participate in locating over 800 possible unmarked graves and help reclaim the legacy that some of these folks may have lost,” said Daniel Bigman, president of Bigman Geophysical.

Part of the restoration effort includes outreach and engagement with descendants of Oakland Cemetery’s African-American residents. On Saturday, June 11, HOF will host a Juneteenth program featuring guided walking tours of the African American grounds, African American burial records research, information about the upcoming restoration efforts, and more. The program runs from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., is free and open to the public and is appropriate for all ages.