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.

Volunteer Voices: Getting to Know Oakland Volunteer LaDoris Bias-Davis

Oakland Cemetery relies on the incredible energy, dedication, and generosity of over 200 volunteers. Working in the gardens, giving tours, staffing the Visitors Center & Museum Shop, or giving countless hours at special and private events, Oakland volunteers never fail to amaze with their passion and commitment. Weve asked our volunteers to share their stories of how they became involved at Oakland and their experiences here.

Meet LaDoris Bias-Davis

Tell us a little about yourself:
I am LaDoris Bias-Davis. I’m Mississippi born and bred into a family of 13, so you know I have stories to tell! I’m an educator/trainer-consultant and storyteller/actor by trade. I’ve been telling tales and facilitating workshops across the United States for 15 years. My programs are tailored to schools, libraries, youth groups, early childhood organizations, literacy/reading programs, motivational assemblies, corporations, family reunions and more. From fables to fairy tales, fiction to non-fiction, Bible stories to “bet ya can’t tell just one” stories, the Ezra Jack Keats collection, Gullah tales, African-American and inter-cultural tales and “me and Mississippi” collection of personal stories, I try to engage audiences and provide programs for interactive learning. I have a bachelor of arts in speech and theatre, and a graduate degree in early literacy education. But really I’ve been spinning tales and creating characters since I learned to talk.

How did you get involved in volunteering with Oakland?
Oakland was looking for actors of African-American descent for the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours about nine or 10 years ago. The intent was to showcase some of the stories in Oakland’s African American section. I was recommended by someone who knew someone already volunteering at Oakland. I came aboard as Carrie Steele-Logan and the rest, as they say, is history.

What do you like most about volunteering at Oakland?
My role at Oakland is to share stories and bring to life the history and lives of some of the amazing residents here. I volunteer at Sunday in the Park, the Juneteenth observance, and at Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween tours, usually in the role of an actress or storyteller. I volunteer at Oakland because I love being involved in learning about the wonderful people buried there and sharing their stories with thousands of people year after year. I love the camaraderie of the staff and fellow volunteers. What I like most is working with fellow volunteers and bringing to life the characters so their stories can be told and their lives and contributions appreciated. It is an amazing place to be a part of!

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

What is your favorite Oakland experience or memory?
My favorite experience is every single night of the Halloween tours and every single character I’ve played. One particular highlight was when I, playing Julia Hayes Palmer, was paired with a male actor playing Dr. Fred Palmer, a white man who invented Palmer’s Cocoa Butter and married Julia, a former slave. We gave the script a lot of drama as we informed the crowd “our marriage caused quite a stir back in our day!” The crowds roared with laughter! Oakland visitors help make the moments memorable and unforgettable.

HOF Volunteer applications have closed for 2018. However, if you would like to be considered for future volunteer opportunities or want to know more about what our volunteers do, please contact Richard Harker, Director of Special Events and Volunteers: rharker@oaklandcemetery.com or 404-688-2107. 

Oakland Cemetery’s free guided tours relay the history of Atlanta’s earliest civil rights leaders

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day and throughout Black History Month, Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) hosts free guided walking tours of Oakland Cemetery’s African American Grounds, a burial space containing the histories of thousands of Atlanta’s earliest black citizens.

On Monday, Jan. 15 at 1:30 p.m., HOF offers visitors a “behind-the-stones” guided tour of the restoration work happening in the cemetery’s 3.5-acre African American Grounds section. This tour is free and open to the public, and reservations are not required to join.

In 2017 HOF began a large-scale, phased hardscape and landscape restoration of the area, which had not undergone a massive restoration in more than 100 years. During the tour, attendees will learn about some of the people and families whose lots have recently been restored, as well as what projects remain in the African American Grounds.

“On King Day we look forward to welcoming repeat visitors and newcomers alike, and hope that folks will take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about some Oakland residents who contributed to Atlanta’s early civil rights movements,” said David Moore, executive director of HOF.

Before the City of Atlanta ended segregation of public spaces in the 1960s, citizens were racially separated even in death; Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place for over 12,000 African Americans. Notable Atlantans buried in the African American Grounds section include: Thomas Askew, one of the city’s first black professional photographers; Marie Woolfork Taylor, a co-founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; real estate pioneer Antoine Graves, Sr.; and Selena Sloan Butler, who in 1911 founded Atlanta’s first parent-teacher association for black families.

As part of the national MLK Day of Service, Bank of America staffers and students from Georgia Tech will lend HOF’s gardens team a helping hand, with volunteers tackling various landscape projects in the African American Grounds.

For those unable to attend the Jan. 15 tour, throughout February HOF will offer tours of the African American Grounds. Presented in partnership with the City of Atlanta, the hour-long tours will be offered at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 10, Feb. 13, Feb. 17, and Feb. 22. February’s tours are also free and open to the public, but a reservation is required in advance as space is limited.

Any donations received during these tours will be allocated to the African American Grounds restoration project.

Volunteer Voices: Getting to Know Volunteer Jihan Hurse

Oakland Cemetery relies on the incredible energy, dedication, and generosity of over two hundred volunteers. Working in the gardens, giving tours, staffing the Visitor Center, or giving countless hours at special and private events, Oakland volunteers never fail to amaze with their passion and commitment. Weve asked some of Oaklands volunteers to share their stories of how they became involved as Oakland volunteers and their experiences here.

Meet Jihan Hurse

As a volunteer, Jihan Hurse helps bring Oakland’s history to life.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I’m a highly-functional introvert. I consider myself to be an early adopter, and I am a huge content connoisseur – I read multiple newspapers, several blogs, and various news websites online daily. I try to read four to six books a month on a broad range of genres. I am fashion-forward, and shoes are my favorite weakness. I love thrift shopping.

I volunteer for Make-A-Wish GA. I am a tour guide at Historic Oakland Cemetery and the CDC Museum. Professionally, I have worked at a federal public health agency for the last 15 years. Before that, I modeled professionally for 10 years. However, I aspire to publish a novel, become a TV writer, start a non-profit for single mothers, start a publishing and production company…just to name a few.

How did you get involved in volunteering at Oakland?
I attended one of the Black History Month tours of the African American Grounds. I recognized many familiar names and wanted to learn the stories behind the names. As an introvert, I wanted to challenge myself, and I thought that volunteering as a tour guide would provide a unique opportunity to strengthen my public speaking skills and be more social.

I volunteer as a weekend tour guide and also work as one of the guides in the African American Grounds. Atlanta is a diverse city in many aspects: racially, culturally, economically. Oakland demonstrates these characteristics of the city through the various stories and backgrounds of its residents. Volunteering allows me to share the rich diversity of the city.

What do you like most about volunteering at Oakland?
I take the definition of the word “guide” literally, and I like to think I guide visitors on a journey; transporting them in time to when our residents were alive. I also love the camaraderie amongst the volunteers and shared passion of history. I least like the hill near the Confederate section in the middle of July or August!

Jihan Hurse leading a tour at Historic Oakland.

What is your favorite Oakland experience/moment?
I don’t have a specific memorable moment at Oakland. There are so many it’s hard to choose just one. I will say I favor those magical moments when an Atlanta native is on a tour and they recognize a name such as “Inman” or “Austell” and they connect the dots that these aren’t just names of areas, cities, streets, et cetera – they were actually people. You can actually see the thought connect and their eyes light up. It reminds me of my first visit and the day I fell in love with Oakland.

HOF Volunteer applications have closed for 2018. However, if you would like to be considered for future volunteer opportunities or want to know more about what our volunteers do, please contact Richard Harker, Director of Special Events and Volunteers: rharker@oaklandcemetery.com or 404-688-2107


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.”

Oakland Resident Spotlight: Learning More About the Thompson Lot

By Ashley Shares and Dr. DL Henderson

The new headstone on the Thompson/Henderson lot pays tribute to Dr. Beatrice Blanche Saunders Thompson (d. 1964), a physician and surgeon, and her husband Sidney James Thompson (d. 1945), a Fulton County juvenile probation officer and founder of Atlanta’s oldest boys club.

Dr. Thompson attended Atlanta University and following a short first marriage to Robert Saunders which left her a widow, she continued her education at Walden University in Nashville, Tennessee. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the A.M.E. church was so thoroughly impressed with her diligence and scholarship that he financed her medical education at Meharry Medical College.

Dr. BBS Thompson in Athens Daily Herald, Aug. 13, 1914. (photo courtesy BillionGraves.com)

Dr. BBS Thompson in Athens Daily Herald, Aug. 13, 1914. (photo courtesy BillionGraves.com)

She graduated with honors in 1901 and became the first African American female to practice medicine in Athens, Georgia. She cared for both African American and white patients, and she performed the first surgery by an African American physician in Athens. Dr. Thompson was part owner of the E. D. Harris Drugstore, the first African American owned drugstore in Athens.

In 1909, she opened a practice in Knoxville, Tennessee, and joined the staff of the Knoxville Medical College. Her second husband, Sidney James Thompson, enrolled as a medical student, and Dr. Thompson was one of his instructors. Sidney Thompson apparently did not complete his medical education, and the couple later relocated to Atlanta where he began working as a baker. But his passion led him to start a boys club in Atlanta under the auspices of the Law and Order League of America. This club, established in the early 1930s, was the founding organization of the current George Washington Carver Boys and Girls Club, and the club is now affiliated with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta.

Dr. Thompson’s younger sister Estelle Amelia Henderson (d. 1936) passed the Alabama bar in 1919. In Atlanta, attorney Henderson taught at Morris Brown College and served as the college’s financial agent. No record of her passing the bar in Georgia has been found, but she is listed as an attorney at law in the Atlanta City Directory and the Fulton County census records in the 1920s and 1930s.

She practiced from her office in the Odd Fellows building on Auburn Avenue. The 1921 publication of Henderson’s book on race relations, “Is Washington Alive in the Life of the Negro?” was announced in the Atlanta Constitution and endorsed by U. S. President Taft and Vice President Fairbanks. Her husband, Fred R. Henderson (d. 1958), worked as a carpenter. He learned his profession at Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington. After Estelle’s death, he married Pearl Hooks Stewart (d. 1980) who is also buried on the Henderson/Thompson lot. Other family members buried on the lot include Mary Underwood Reed (d. 1933), mother of Dr. Thompson and Estelle Henderson; their stepfather, Daniel W. Reed (d. 1930); their half-brother Henry A. Reed (d. 1926) and his wife, Eloise (d. 1924).

The actresses who portrayed Dr. Thompson during Capturing the Spirit at Dr. Thompson's lot.

The actresses who portrayed Dr. Thompson during Capturing the Spirit at Dr. Thompson’s lot.

In 2016 the restoration of Dr. BBS Thompson’s family lot was made possible by generous donations at Oakland Cemetery’s annual Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tour. In February of this year, Dr. Thompson’s headstone and those of her family members were repaired and re-set by member of Oakland’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team.

The work began with repairing the cradlings of Estella and Fred Henderson. Cradling surrounds a single grave and is meant to mimic a bedframe. The broken cradling pieces were repaired using stainless steel pins inserted into holes drilled on the interior of the stone. The pieces were adhered with mason’s epoxy. Next, two small concrete and plaster headstones were carefully repaired using the same epoxy.

These headstones were originally given to the family of the deceased as part of a funeral home’s burial package. All of the larger headstones on the lot were re-set. To do this, the PRO Team removed the headstones and properly leveled and compacted the soil beneath them. Eighty-nine stone, a rough and angular gravel, was added to facilitate drainage. The headstones were placed back and a string line was used to make sure they were in line with one another. Something special that was done on this lot was to provide Dr. Thompson and her husband Sydney with a new granite headstone. Dr. Thompson still has her funeral home marker, but Sydney had none. The style selected in known as a “beveled companion stone” and it marks both of their grave sites. This marker type would have been available during the times of their deaths.

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. 







PRO Team Field Notes: Restoration and Preservation for Eliza S. Blake

by Ashley Shares and Dr. DL Henderson

Eliza Street Blake's headstone (center) before restoration. Photo courtesy Linda Ferree and Findagrave.com.

Eliza Street Blake’s headstone (center) before restoration. Photo courtesy Linda Ferree and Findagrave.com.

The first phase of the African American Grounds restoration has presented the Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team with many unique challenges and opportunities to hone our conservation skills. When we began working in Block 68, we discovered a brick bedstead bordering a marble monument that was almost entirely overgrown with grass. Most brick cradling is only one horizontal row deep (called a course) and often not mortared together in any way. Once we began carefully digging, we realized quickly that the bricks were cemented together with a high-portland content mortar and embedded in a thick layer of concrete that covered the entire grave space. Portland is what gives a mortar its rigidity, adhesion, and compressive strength. It is easy for us to tell when we encounter a mix that has a high percentage of portland because it cannot be easily scratched with a nail, and dislodging bricks or stone from it is challenging. The bricks in this case were laid three – or in some places – four courses deep so what at first presented itself as an easy project of simply relaying one course of brick turned into a major undertaking.

Because there were several courses and the mortar joints between them were very neatly tooled, the PRO Team determined that the installer had probably intended for more than a small portion of brick to be visible at ground level. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have taken the time to do such neat work. It was decided that the bricks should all be removed and reset at a higher grade. However, although we could remove the top courses, the course embedded in concrete was impossible to chisel out without breaking the bricks. As often happens, the PRO Team had to make a compromise between preservation and restoration.

Preservation is the act of stabilizing and conserving an object with as little intrusion as possible. On the other hand, restoration involves returning an object to the appearance and character it held during a historical “period of significance.” In the case of cemeteries, this means the day that the stone was first laid. At Oakland Cemetery, most of our projects involve a careful balance of both preservation and restoration.

On this particular project, we skewed more towards restoration. In order to ensure that the original top course of bricks was fully exposed above the soil line, we decided to add a course of modern bricks beneath the older ones. This allows the bedstead to appear the way it originally did. The mortar we used has high compressive strength and a similar color to what originally was used to lay them. In the end, we replaced the old gravel that filled the interior with new, fresher-looking 89 stone gravel.

Ribbet collageThe newly restored brick cradle encloses the grave of Eliza Street Blake. She rests among family members, all of whom predeceased her—mother Amanda Blake (d. 1877), uncle Lucien Heard* (d. 1881), grandmother Adrian Heard (d. 1884), and three-year-old Cornelius F. Blake (d. 1886) who lies in an unmarked grave. A 1928 advertisement in the Atlanta Constitution offered the sale of three graves spaces in the “colored section” of Oakland Cemetery. Interested parties were instructed to apply at 264 Ellis Street, Eliza Blake’s residence. Today, three unused spaces still remain on her family lot.

In late March 1936, Eliza Blake took a fall down the steps at her home and fractured her right upper arm. Aged 83, she already suffered from a heart problem, and she was impaired by dementia, or senility, as it was then called. During the week following her fall, Blake developed pneumonia, which further complicated her recovery. She died at William A. Harris Memorial Hospital on March 31, 1936. Her brief obituary noted that she was “a beloved matron” in her community. According to her death certificate she never married, though she was referred to respectfully by the honorific “Mrs.” in both her obituary and in Oakland’s burial records. Her funeral was held at Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she was a member of the Independent Daughters of Bethel. She worked her entire life as a domestic servant, yet Mrs. Blake managed to leave a sizable legacy to her church—a bequest of $1,500.

*primarily documented as Lucius Heard

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. 

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. 


Oakland Resident Spotlight: Rev. Rufus H. Houston

by Dr. DL Henderson and Ashley Shares

Volunteers cleaning a headstone during January's MLK Day of Service

Volunteers cleaning a headstone during January’s MLK Day of Service

Oakland Cemetery’s Dr. Martin Luther King National Day of Service was beautiful. The sunny skies and unseasonably warm temperatures made Oakland Cemetery’s first volunteer monument cleaning event very enjoyable.

Over the course of two shifts, just short of 30 individuals from local universities, communities, and businesses managed to clean 68 monuments. Thirty-nine of these were in the cemetery’s African American Grounds, a 3.5-acre area that is home to many notable Atlantans, including Dr. Beatrice Thompson and Carrie Steele Logan.

The work in this section was done utilizing the gentlest means possible. A demonstration of proper and safe cleaning techniques was provided before volunteers were allowed to choose from stones in this section. Stones ranged from very large granite family monuments to small, handmade concrete tombstones. Volunteers used soft plastic bristle and horse-hair brushes of various sizes, fresh water, and a non-ionic detergent called D2 Biological Solution. Some of the stones, being made of old and fragile marble, were cleaned using extremely gently brushing with water and D2. Some stones, being too old and unstable, were restricted from this cleaning program and will be taken care of by Oakland’s trained restoration staff.

One of the recently-revived headstones is that of Rev. Rufus H. Houston, which bears the following epitaph:

“Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Psalm 37:37).

Rev. R. H. Houston

Rev. R. H. Houston

Houston’s grave marker resembles a lectern like those found in the pulpit of a church. The slanted top of the marker holds a book or Bible, an appropriate symbol of Houston’s calling to the ministry. Houston was born enslaved in Savannah in 1845 but spent his early life in Athens, Georgia. At age 11, he was sold away from his parents and remained separated from his family until slavery was abolished.

By the close of the Civil War Houston had almost nothing, but he had managed to earn and save $6 in silver. Like thousands of freed slaves, he relocated to Atlanta seeking a better way of life. He continued to save his earnings and opened an account in the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. When the bank closed in 1874, Houston and tens of thousands of African Americans (who had mistakenly believed their money was insured by the federal government) were devastated to learn they had lost their entire savings.

Rev. Houston's headstone. Courtesy Linda Ferree via FindaGrave

Rev. Houston’s headstone. Courtesy Linda Ferree via FindaGrave

Two years later, Houston suffered an even greater loss when his wife Frances died in 1876. Houston worked as a laborer, then as a domestic servant, continuing to live on a small portion of his earnings while rebuilding his savings. Though he would eventually work for the U.S. Post Office at an annual salary of $450, the satisfaction of accumulating money was never enough for Houston. For years, he had aspired to be a minister, and for that he felt he needed an education. Because he could not go to school during the day and continue to work, he hired a tutor.

When the Storrs School began offering night classes, he was able to attend school for the first time in his life. In 1882, he married his second wife, Laura Boyd, a Christian woman who supported his goals. Houston’s years of patient effort—striving, saving, and studying—finally paid off. In 1885, he was ordained as a deacon of Friendship Baptist Church, and in 1890 he was licensed to preach.  Houston’s biblical epitaph effectively summarizes his life. He desired to follow a righteous path, living in a bold and courageous manner that others could emulate, and despite the troubles he encountered in his life, he ultimately triumphed. Houston’s journey to the pulpit took him from slavery into freedom, through adversity and sorrow, and brought him from illiteracy to enlightenment to become an educated man of God.


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. 

Shop Oakland: Black History Month Reading List

The Visitors Center & Museum Shop at Oakland Cemetery celebrates Black History Month with 10% off all titles related to African American history, through the end of February. Immerse yourself in these newly-released titles that shed light on the voices, struggles, and triumphs throughout history. Historic Oakland Foundation members receive an additional 10% off as well!

Voices Beyond BondageVoices Beyond Bondage: An Anthology of Verse by African Americans in the 19th Century:
The early 19th century birthed the nation’s first black-owned periodicals, the first media spaces to provide primary outlets for the empowerment of African American voices. For many, poetry became this empowerment. Almost every black-owned periodical featured an open call for poetry, and African Americans, both free and enslaved, responded by submitting droves of poems for publication. Yet until now, these poems — and an entire literary movement — have been lost to modern readers. The poems in Voices Beyond Bondage address the horrific and the mundane, the humorous and the ordinary and the extraordinary. Authors wrote about slavery, but also about love, morality, politics, perseverance, nature, and God. These poems evidence authors who were passionate, dedicated, vocal, and above all resolute in a bravery which was both weapon and shield against a world of prejudice and inequity. These authors wrote to be heard; more than 150 years later it is at last time to listen.

Southern Food and Civil RightsSouthern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding The Revolution:
Food has been and continues to be an essential part of any movement for progressive change. From home cooks and professional chefs to local eateries and bakeries, food has helped activists continue marching for change for generations. Atlanta’s Paschal’s restaurant provided safety and comfort food for Civil Rights leaders. Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam operated their own farms, dairies, and bakeries in the 1960’s. “The Sandwich Brigade” organized efforts to feed the thousands at the March on Washington. Author Fred Opie details the ways southern food nourished the fight for freedom, along with cherished recipes associated with the era.

Atlanta and the Civil Rights MovementAtlanta and The Civil Rights Movement 1944-1968:
Since Reconstruction African Americans have served as key protagonists in the rich and expansive narrative of American social protest. Their collective efforts challenged and redefined the meaning of freedom as a social contract in America. During the first half of the 20th century, a progressive group of black business, civic, and religious leaders from Atlanta challenged the status quo by employing a method of incremental gradualism to improve the social and political conditions existent within the city. By the mid-20th century, a younger generation of activists emerged, seeking a more direct and radical approach towards exercising their rights as full citizens. A culmination of the death of Emmitt Till and the Brown decision fostered this paradigm shift by bringing attention to the safety and educational concerns specific to African American youth. Deploying direct-action tactics and invoking the language of civil and human rights, the energy and zest of this generation of activists pushed the modern civil rights movement into a new chapter where young men and women became the voice of social unrest.

Politics Civil Rights and law in Black AtlantaPolitics, Civil Rights, and Law in Black Atlanta:
The Civil Rights movement in Atlanta is most often equated with the tireless work and inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. However, a host of other courageous individuals, both known and unknown, came before, during, and after Dr. King to face the challenges of racism and segregation in the South. This unique pictorial history celebrates these people, their accomplishments, and the legacy they left for today’s African American youth in Atlanta.