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 Early Landscapes: The Fence and the Wall

By Sara Van Beck

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.


Very old photographs of familiar places are most intriguing to many people, particularly those with an interest in history. Oakland Cemetery is no exception; old photographs illustrate how Oakland grew, how it changed with decades of improvements, and in some cases what has been lost to the vagaries of time. These early images are quite intriguing as to the landscape and gardening at Oakland, helping to inform staff on appropriate plant selections and landscape motifs with restoration projects.

But photographs only go so far, providing disparate visual mileposts to anchor the understanding of Oakland’s changing landscape.

One of Oakland’s most dominant features is its enclosure. The brick and granite perimeter wall sets Oakland apart from its immediate surroundings, and with the passage of time now signals the venerable age of the landscape within. However, in the beginning, the cemetery’s perimeter enclosure was all about providing basic security (and at a cost the City could afford.) For the first 40 years, numerous wood fences protected the cemetery. In a Southern climate, this proved both short-lived and a regular drain on the City’s budget.

Soon after the City purchased the Original Six Acres for the “City Grave Yard” in 1850, expenditures were requested for building a fence. In March 1851, it was “Resolved that the grave yard be enclosed with post and plank fence, panels to be eight feet in length.” However, it seems the fence wasn’t actually constructed until 1855, based on a terse line in the Annual Report made to the Atlanta City Council for the year: “A contract has been made with D. Demorest, Esq., for the building of a substantial fence around the Yard for the sum of $225.”

It only took three years for the fence to decay and require another infusion of funds. In June of 1858, the City Council’s Committee on Cemetery reported, “that after having taken down the old fence on eastern end of the Cemetery they found that about one half of the material is so rotton [sic] that it is unfit for use, and will have to be replaced by new material.”

No surprise, the Civil War took its toll on the fence as it did on the rest of Atlanta. Letters and military reports lament the Federals’ burning of the fence and palings around graves; lesser offenses like grazing their horses; and acts of vandalism and desecration. The Chairman of the Committee on Cemetery pressed for a new fence as early as practicable, to be constructed “with sound oak posts with base or bottom board 12 inches wide and [four] 6 inch boards above also an upright or joint board to each post. Can be put up for $700.” In 1869 a mention is made that the front gate needed a post (perhaps because of rot) but no mention is made alluding to the gate’s appearance.

The early 1870s mark the evolution of Oakland from a small-town graveyard to the municipal cemetery of a rural landscape design we know today. As the newly acquired land was laid out, surveyed and developed, a new fence was in order to replace the dilapidated old one and enclose the new land. Bids were advertised in the local newspapers in June 1871, and in July J.D. Wofford’s bid was accepted at $8.43 per panel. Wofford’s fence was completed in September.

Interestingly, Wofford’s fence doesn’t seem to have run along the side adjacent to the Georgia Railroad tracks. The following spring of 1872, a new fence was requested to be in the same design as Wofford’s, using the sound timber from the old fence “in strengthening the two ends.” This same year, the City opened up Hunter Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive), finally constructing a direct street from the main part of town to the cemetery, thus bypassing the old circuitous route families used to visit the cemetery. In response to the new road, new arched gateways were built at the main Hunter Street and secondary Fair Street entrances. And to christen the new look of the transforming cemetery, it was finally bequeathed a name, “Oakland.” On March 22, 1873, the Atlanta Daily Sun reported that a resolution was adopted “to have the proper name of [the] City Cemetery put on each entrance.”

Image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly 1881 (click to enlarge)

Thus, the general configuration of the fence for the next 25 years is set – two primary gates on the perimeter roads (Hunter Street and Fair Street, now Memorial Drive) and a small third gate for north pedestrian and railroad access. The arched “Oakland Cemetery” gates likely were incorporated into early stylized engravings of Oakland and the Confederate Grounds. Two well-known images, one from Illustrated History of Atlanta (1877) and one from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly (1881), show a simple solid arch set on square pillars. While not completely accurate, the engravings do provide a sense of how Oakland now greeted its visitors.

Six years pass and the wood fence is again in need of repair, and the City earmarked $75 for the job in 1878. However, the fence was still badly decayed in 1880, and by 1882 the repair costs were estimated at $600. The City Council and Board of Aldermen did agree in 1882 to move the north gate to a more accessible convenience location, as the appropriation was only $5. However the Aldermen declined a request to install a small, convenient pedestrian gate on the south fence, deeming it as unnecessary despite its $5 price tag. Mayor Hillyer remarked upon the fence’s sorry state of affairs in his 1885 New Year’s address, acknowledging the cemetery needed a new fence.

The new fence didn’t happen until 1887, but by then it came with a 300-foot rock wall, the impetus for the brick wall we know today. This first rock wall started at the southwest corner of the cemetery (now the corner of Memorial Drive and Oakland Avenue) and extended along Fair Street to the east. The repaired fence was then repainted, so far the only indication that the fence was not just raw wood.

This version of the fence is clearly rendered in the 1892 bird’s eye view of Atlanta, a map of which hangs in the Bell Tower gift shop. The main Hunter Street gate is double-arched, seemingly the more elaborate of the two. The second arched gate on Fair Street is less grand, and a third simple gate is directly behind the Bell Tower. This was reportedly known as Cemetery Crossing. Glimpses of the fence can be caught in the background of a circa 1895 stereoview, looking north near the Governor Brown monument.

A circa 1895 stereoview, looking north near the Governor Brown monument.

A quick inspection of the bird’s eye view map reveals no fence nor wall, but open grass and a meandering creek along the east side of the cemetery. The now iconic granite rock wall, along what was then called South Boulevard street, was constructed in 1892. Financed by the sale of around 70 vacant lots owned by the City, it rendered “that portion of the cemetery more safe and presentable.” Council minutes indicate the ordinance for the project was passed in July 1892, suggesting the map was made prior to the start of construction, and so provides documentation as to Oakland’s changing landscape over its development.

Finally, after decades of fence repairs, the City agreed to and paid for a brick wall. Originally, a rock wall was requested by the Committee on Cemetery in 1894, but it seems brick was deemed more prudent. Proud of the results, the Chairman for the Committee on Cemetery reported in 1896 the cemetery “is now nearly enclosed by a neat and permanent wall, capped with an iron fence. There only remains about 400 feet to be built on the north side, along the Georgia railroad, where a retaining wall is necessary.” The Hunter Street (main) gate was built at the same time for $1,200; Bruce & Morgan Architects designed the gate, while the local firms of Venable & Collins Granite Company (office on Broad Street) provided stonework and Gate City Fence Works on Edgewood Avenue provided the wrought iron fencing. The Hunter Street gate bears a striking resemblance to George Washington’s tomb, constructed in 1831 and doubtless the inspiration for many cemetery gates across the country.

George Washington’s tomb, erected in 1831.

Construction of the brick wall brought a number of changes regarding the secondary gates. The third gate in the wood fence, located directly behind the Sexton’s Office providing access to the train tracks, was moved west to the lowest spot. This made the gate “on grade” to the railroad track bed, obviating the need for steps down to the tracks, and allowed for a drainage system. Happily, the small pedestrian gate deemed unnecessary in 1882 was finally constructed, located at what is now Jewish Hill, halfway between Boulevard and the Fair Street gate. This is almost at the corner of Park Drive, where the old trolleys once turned south to head down to Grant Park. A new, small pedestrian gate was constructed at the northwest corner of the cemetery, close to the MARTA station and designed to provide visitor access for those coming from the north at Young Street across Decatur Street and the railroad tracks. The terra cotta tile coping was installed atop the wall for protection in 1909.

Ivy-covered Fair Street entrance gate

It is not clear when the large Fair Street gate was built, but presumably it was built along with the Hunter Street gate when the brick wall was built in 1896. Its design motif was also popular across the country at the time. A galvanized iron canopy was added in 1910 at a cost of $440, providing shelter for visitors presumably as they waited for the trolley. Most of the gate’s early images show it covered in ivy, a popular romantic motif in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. One rare image of the gate, dating from the middle 20th century, shows the gate fully exposed.

The Hunter Street gate was re-built in 1966 with assistance from the National Park Service as part of their Mission 66 program. Celebrating 50 years of the National Park Service, Mission 66 was tasked with identifying and preserving America’s heritage. For reasons unknown, the gate was not completely rebuilt to its original appearance; two decorative Corinthian inset pieces towards the top of the two main columns were not kept, and were instead replaced with plain brick. It is suspected that the Fair Street gate was disassembled at this time, taken down to the basic columns of today.

A 1902 photo of Oakland’s front gate, taken from Atlanta and Its Builders

The brick wall was restored in 1998 following the original design, but with reinforcing systems, and re-used 30% of the original brick. Barring unforeseen accidents, Oakland’s walls should stand for another 100 years.

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.

Third annual A Victorian Holiday at Oakland brings holiday cheer to historic Oakland Cemetery

See Oakland’s mausoleums decked out in holiday splendor!

On Dec. 2, Historic Oakland Cemetery adds some history to the holiday season at the third annual A Victorian Holiday at Oakland.

Held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., A Victorian Holiday at Oakland is the final event of the year for Historic Oakland Foundation, and proceeds benefit HOF’s mission to preserve, restore, enhance, and share Atlanta’s oldest public burial ground.

During A Victorian Holiday at Oakland, visitors can take the Holiday Tour of Eternal Homes, which gives a “behind-the-stones” look at some of Oakland’s magnificent mausoleums. A costumed tour guide shares the histories of the families who lie in rest in each of the structures, which are decorated in holiday splendor.

In addition to the mausoleum tour, A Victorian Holiday at Oakland includes a wide range of activities for all ages. Visitors can take photos with Santa Claus and his sidekick Rudolph while enjoying a reading of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Kids can try their hand at Victorian crafts and ornament-making, and guitarist Matthias Young performs holiday standards throughout the afternoon. Members of HOF’s gardens team will be on hand to demonstrate how to design and decorate with holiday greenery.

The Holiday Market boasts unique gift items made from local artisans, and A Victorian Holiday at Oakland attendees can take advantage of a 10 percent discount on items purchased in Oakland’s Museum Shop. Douglas fir wreaths and bundles made with greenery harvested from Oakland’s gardens will also be available for purchase.

“We are looking forward to celebrating the season in traditional Victorian style, with sights and sounds that are sure to raise everyone’s spirits,” said HOF Executive Director David Moore.

A Victorian Holiday at Oakland is sponsored by Larkin on Memorial. The event is free and open to the public, but Holiday Mausoleum Tour tickets must be purchased in advance. Tickets are available at www.freshtix.com.

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 Tours in Focus: The Kiser Mausoleum and Oakland’s Funerary Architecture

by Marcy Breffle, Education Coordinator

Classical or Gothic Revival, simple stone house or ornate mini-church – the 50-plus mausoleums that dot Oakland’s landscape can make the cemetery seem more like an outdoor art gallery than a graveyard. These large, above-ground burial chambers hold the remains of hundreds of Atlanta citizens, but are noted for their symbolism and funerary design. One of the most visited mausoleums at Oakland is the Kiser Mausoleum.

Built in 1873, the Kiser Mausoleum was one of the first mausoleums constructed at Oakland. With its rock-faced granite exterior and coursed ashlar masonry, the mausoleum was designed in the Romanesque Revival style. This style is based on the architecture of medieval Europe and is commonly found at Oakland.

Marion Columbus Kiser, the patriarch of the Kiser family, was born in Campbell (now Fulton) County in 1830. He began his career as an apprentice for his older brother Wiley, who owned a dry goods store. After the Civil War, Kiser opened his own wholesale business with his brother John. M.C. and J.F Kiser Company became a successful wholesale shoes and dry good store. Kiser turned his sights to real estate, investing in development around the city. He erected two buildings on Pryor Street, the Kiser Building and the Marion Hotel. The eight-story Kiser Building was constructed in 1890 to house law offices. In 1893 Kiser opened the Marion Hotel at 97 Pryor Street. The hotel was built in the Romanesque style and served guests for 58 years. Both buildings were demolished – the Kiser Building in 1936 and the Marion Hotel in 1951.

Marion Kiser married three times. His first wife Octavia died in 1873 at age 34. He remarried 19-year-old Hessie Scott, who also passed away in her mid-30s. One day, Kiser was visiting Oakland to pay his respects to both former wives when he met Sarah Turner Ivy, a widow who was visiting the grave of her deceased husband, Michael. They began courting and he proposed marriage. Sarah accepted his proposal, with one condition. Sarah made it clear that she would not share the mausoleum with Kiser’s first two wives unless her first husband, Michael, was also there. Kiser agreed and Michael Ivy’s remains were moved. Kiser died in 1893, and he was interred within the mausoleum along with his three wives, Sarah’s first husband, and several other family members.

Other monuments on the family lot honor members of the Kiser family. The monument topped with the angel Gabriel was erected for Marion’s brother John, who died in 1882.

Family monuments outside of the Kiser mausoleum.

Another monument was built in honor of Marion’s beloved son, Eddie, who died at age 18. The monument is covered with symbols: an anchor (hope), tree stump (a life cut short), rock base (a life built on a firm foundation), a cross (Christianity), and ivy (abiding memory).

Detail of epitaph to Eddie Kiser.

To learn more about Victorian symbolism and Oakland’s collection of mausoleums, attend the Art and Architecture of Death special topic tour Sunday at 6:30 p.m. This tour does not require reservations and tickets can be purchased at the Visitors Center and Museum Shop.

 

Historic Oakland Foundation sprints toward milestone anniversary with fundraising campaign

This October marks the 40th anniversary of Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) becoming a nationally-recognized nonprofit organization charged with preserving, restoring, enhancing, and sharing historic Oakland Cemetery. In conjunction with this milestone, HOF embarks on a 40-day fundraising campaign to support Atlanta’s oldest public burial ground and a treasured repository of local, state, and national history.

Beginning Wednesday, Aug. 23 and culminating on Sunday, Oct. 1 at HOF’s Sunday in the Park event, the Foundation has a goal to raise $40,000 in 40 days. During that five-week period, every dollar raised will go toward supporting an array of preservation, education, and public interest projects at Oakland Cemetery, including: hardscape and landscape restoration; field trip programs and interpretive signage; tree canopy care and garden maintenance; and more.

“With public and private support, the Foundation has accomplished great things over the past forty years, from fully restoring Georgia’s second oldest Jewish burial ground to making a strong recovery after 2008’s devastating tornado,” said David Moore, executive director at HOF. “We hope all who enjoy Oakland and what it offers will contribute to our campaign to commemorate this significant year.”

Hardscape and landscape projects that this campaign benefits include the first major restoration of Oakland’s African American Grounds in nearly 100 years. Additionally, funds will help complete the restoration work at the final resting place of golf great Bobby Jones and continued maintenance of the historic Jewish burial grounds.

“Oakland Cemetery is many things to many people, and our guided tours, gardens, and even physical landscape reflects that diversity,” Moore said. “As we look to the next forty years and beyond, it is critical that the Foundation has the community’s support to continue our mission of maintaining this rare piece of Atlanta history.”

All donations (excluding HOF memberships) made between Aug. 23 and Oct. 1 will count toward HOF’s fundraising goal. Donations can be sent by mail, on Oakland Cemetery’s website, at the cemetery’s visitor’s center, and through its mobile app, available for iOS and Android devices.

PRO Team Field Notes: Rubbed the Wrong Way – The Negative Effects of Gravestone Rubbing

By Ashley Shares, Preservation Manager

When I was a child my grandmother and parents used to take me to cemeteries. Not just where my grandfather was buried, but also to burial grounds with no connection to my family. As a little girl the epitaphs, iconography, and different text styles delighted me. I calculated how long people lived, imagined the historic events they experienced, and drew conclusions about familial connections. Imagine my frustration when some stones were too faint to read! The culprit: gravestone rubbing.

Headstone rubbing is banned in many historic cemeteries, including Oakland Cemetery. Image courtesy Peterson AFB

Armed with thin tracing paper and a red crayon, I set out to discover the mysteries that the oldest headstones in Chicago’s Resurrection Cemetery held. This cemetery was one of my favorites growing up, thanks in part to the legend of “Resurrection Mary,” a hitchhiking ghost said to haunt the cemetery and nearby Willowbrook Ballroom. After an afternoon of earnest and hard rubbing, none of my attempts yielded particularly legible words or pictures and I grew quickly bored, as most children would.

Resurrection Cemetery opened in 1904, so there were no stones of considerable ago or fragility. If there had been, my rough work may have resulted in disaster. See, this seemingly innocuous activity beloved by so many children and adults alike can damage headstones. That’s why it is banned at many cemeteries, including Historic Oakland Cemetery.

For example, according to New Hampshire state law:

No person shall make gravestone rubbings in any municipal cemetery or burial ground without first obtaining the written permission of the town selectmen or the mayor of a city or designee. Before granting such permission, the selectmen or mayor will ascertain to the best of their ability that the person making the request knows the proper precautions to be taken and the proper materials to be used for this activity. The town selectmen or city mayor or their designee shall notify the cemetery trustees of the request and its disposition. Any person who violates the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

What makes rubbing dangerous to gravestones? Depending on the material, gravestones deteriorate in different ways. Slate divides in thin sheets, while marble “sugars” or disintegrates. Applying mechanical pressure in the way that rubbing does can exacerbate these issues and result in a loss of historic material. Furthermore, if a stone is unstable, even a small amount of pressure can knock it over and possibly break it.

Slates in various states of delamination. Photo courtesy National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

Another potential pitfall with rubbing is damage from the writing utensil. If the utensil goes through the paper it can at worst scratch the surface and at least discolor it. Crayon wax especially can cause staining that is difficult to remove.

So, is there a safe way to do a rubbing? If care is taken to choose a stone that is sound and only gentle rubbing with a blunt implement is employed, rubbing is harmless. However, often it can be difficult for cemetery visitors to properly judge what “sound” stones look like. Therefore, as a whole, rubbing is not allowed at Oakland.

How can someone read an illegible headstone without doing a rubbing?

Raking Light: Gravestone letters are most easily read on a clear and bright day, when the sun is nearly above the stone. The light is coming from and oblique angle, making shadows deepen. This can be recreated using a mirror if the sun is lower or the stone is turned away from the sun. A flashlight can also be used on cloudy days.

Proper headstone cleaning can help legibility.

Cleaning: Properly cleaning a headstone makes it easier to read by removing growth and staining that obscure the writing. Of course, care must be taken to ensure the stone is a safe candidate for cleaning and that proper cleaner and brushes are used.

Computational Photography: A new field of technology is in development so previously illegible artifacts can be read and deciphered by using different lighting, multiple angles, and “corrected color imagery” photography. To read more about these new techniques, check out Cultural Heritage Imaging.

PRO Team Field Notes: Oakland’s Eastern Greenhouse Wall

by Charlie Paine
Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team Intern

Oakland Cemetery’s Beaumont Allen Greenhouse is located between the historic boiler room and carriage house structure near the cemetery’s northern boundary. These buildings were constructed around the turn of the 20th century and aided facility and lot management at Oakland as the cemetery continued to grow. The original greenhouse has since been removed, but the structure’s supporting walls remain. These walls may not support a greenhouse anymore, but they do support the cemetery’s historic integrity and serve as a symbol of our earliest efforts to make Oakland beautiful.

When a historic brick is covered in Portland cement, the moisture that was supposed to be absorbed and evaporated out, is retained in the wall.

The greenhouse walls were repaired several times in its history, but some repairs caused more issues to arise in the long term. In particular, the easternmost wall seems to have been partially rebuilt near the back top corner without proper bricking into the older wall for support. With parts of the wall not re-tied into the existing structure, the wall had little-to-no lateral support near the top. In addition to the poor re-structuring, the wall was capped, repointed, and in some places stucco’ed-over using Portland cement. Portland cement used as mortar and stucco can be dangerous for historic structures. Mortar is sacrificial and does its duty well only when it’s softer than the masonry it is binding. When a historic brick is covered in Portland cement, the moisture that was supposed to be absorbed and evaporated out, is retained in the wall. This is more degrading to historic bricks, which are more porous and less compressed than modern factory-made bricks.

Since the past repairs, the Beaumont Allen Greenhouse wall was retaining excessive amounts of water and allowed for many weak spots in the structure to develop and worsen to critical condition in recent months. The top of the wall had cracked, separated, and created a hazard for those walking near it.

Excessive amounts of water allowed for many weak spots in the wall.

This May a structural engineer with architectural firm Wiley|Wilson discussed with the PRO Team the Beaumont Allen Greenhouse’s east wall. The engineer addressed possible solutions to save the wall from collapsing. A feasible solution included: removing the cement cap atop the structure, repointing with an appropriate mortar, and inserting steel stitch rods into the wall to re-tie it.

Following the advice of the structural engineer, appropriate repairs have been made to the wall over the past two months, and the work is nearing completion.

Steel stitch rods were embedded every forth course of bricks to add stability to the structure.

Left: Reinforcing steel stitch beams are placed between every fourth row of brick. Right: the beams are supported with mortar.

The remains of the crumbling cement cap were chiseled off and are being recreated with a buff-colored lime mortar cap using the same mortar mixture the wall has been appropriately repointed with. With the wall’s repairs coming to an end, a final brace will be added in coming weeks to adjoin the wall to the carriage structure to ensure the wall’s longevity.

The wall after repairs.

Charlie Paine is a senior at College of Charleston, pursuing his bachelors in historic preservation and community planning and art and architectural history.

 

Oakland Cemetery’s Wooden Headboards

by Sara L. Van Beck, Garden Historian

Strolling around Oakland today, much of the oldest part of the cemetery appears very open, lacking grave markers of any sort. However, we know from the burial abstracts there are very few actual “open spaces” in the cemetery. So, why do these areas seem so open? What happened?

Back then, as is now, not everyone had the money to spend on a high-cost funeral, an extravagant marble marker, or expensive wrought iron fencing. As can still be found in a few locations at Oakland, some had rough-hewn rocks set on-end for headstones. Others used bricks to outline a grave rather than marble. Some in the African American community used natural markers like plants and flowers, and many Atlantans turned to simple wood.

After the Civil War, Oakland Cemetery as we now know it really began to take shape. The city expanded the cemetery to its present boundaries, and the Confederate dead were collected to be given a permanent burial.

A stone marker in the Confederate grounds.

When, in 1869, the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association (ALMA) first gathered the war dead from their rude graves around Atlanta, they re-interred the dead in graves marked with painted wooden headboards. These headboards were inexpensive – a serious consideration as the ladies also had to pay for coffins and workers to collect and move the dead. Also, wooden headboards could be produced quickly. However, after about 10 years the wood was rotting, and replacing them with stone became a pressing need. Through the 1880s ALMA engaged in numerous fundraising activities to replace the wood headboards with the marble ones standing today.

All the land the city bought when it expanded Oakland in 1866-1867 became the “new” cemetery, while the “old” cemetery was what we now call the Original Six Acres and the area just east of the Memorial Drive gate (purchased in 1857). As the city and cemetery staff transformed the old, stodgy City Grave Yard into the picturesque “rural” design we now know, they took it upon themselves to clean up the “old” cemetery to make it more in keeping with the new aesthetic. In the annual report for 1876, the Cemetery Committee reported to the Atlanta City Council that along with planting many new hedges:

“All occupied lots have received careful attention, all the grass, rubbish, and other unsightly matter, such as old wooden enclosures and tumbled down brick tombs have been removed from the cemetery without additional charge to the parties owning such lots.”

Clearing away the old and unsightly continued in 1877, with staff reporting to Council they had removed “all unsightly brick and wooden enclosures” and continued to prune shrubs and hedges into a unified appearance.

In the Original Six Acres near Memorial Drive, one brick barrel vault remains (one also remains in the Confederate section), a likely lone survivor of the old brick tomb burial tradition. With new hedges and decrepit structures gone, Oakland Cemetery had a more open, garden-like atmosphere.

One of the remaining brick barrel vaults at Oakland Cemetery.

In the same year, the city wanted to make more land available to sell to white citizens. It decreed those buried in Slave Square be moved and the lots re-surveyed and sold. In the process, “those who may have head boards, … may be interred by themselves.” Removing more wooden headboards in the then-African American section and replacing those markers with grand mausolea was seen as an aesthetic improvement.

In 1882 former Sexton Holland was interviewed by the Atlanta Constitution regarding his opinion that a new city cemetery would be needed in the near future. One of the greatest issues at Oakland the Sexton expected to be remedied with a new cemetery was a more regular system of management, which would facilitate finding burials after wooden headboards had rotted away.

The wooden headboard.

By this point, tracking interment locations was exceedingly difficult because many burials could not be accurately located after the wood headboards disintegrated. As the wooden headboards in the Confederate Memorial Grounds were lasting only 10 to 15 years in the Georgia climate, this meant that even burials in the “new cemetery” were now posing challenges. It also belies the finances of many families who didn’t have the means to replace the headboards with permanent stone markers. In a newspaper article later the same year, a reporter speaks of his visit to the pauper graves, remarking on the plain boards for some of the dead, while looking up the hill at the granite and marble memorials of Atlanta’s more affluent citizenry.

Oakland’s sole remaining wood headboard resides in the “new” cemetery but not in the African American Grounds. A professional conservator queried about the board suggests it was made of either yellow pine or cypress. Perchance its survival can be attributed to the luck of a protected, well-drained location (mitigating against light exposure and rot) and the use of a highly rot-resistant wood.

All reflect the tradition that wood headboards were widely used for decades by the less affluent citizens of Atlanta, both white and black, and that the Oakland of old was a very different place than the open, rolling garden we admire today.