PRO Team Field Notes: African American Grounds Phase 1 Wrap-Up

By Ashley Shares, Preservation Manager

After many months of hard work, the Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team has completed Phase 1 of hardscape restoration in the African American Grounds. Phase 1 encompasses the southernmost portion of the section, roughly one acre of land. The hardscape budget for this section was roughly $70,000. The total budget for all hardscape work is $436,000, and with proper funding Historic Oakland Foundation anticipates completion of the African American Grounds project in the fall of 2019.

Current hardscape restoration progress in the African American Grounds, as of February 2018 (click to enlarge).

Interesting Finds
More than in any other section the PRO Team has worked in at Oakland, we have learned to “expect the unexpected” in the African American Grounds.

When we remove a headstone or monument to even out the soil or pour a new concrete base, we often find fragments of other headstones. Sometimes this is in the form of a marble shard being used to wedge a headstone into place. Other times, the pieces are scattered in the soil, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Unfortunately most of these pieces are small and cannot be linked to any particular grave site. In one case though, we were able to reconstruct enough of a headstone to determine that it belonged to Ophelia Wellborn, a white female buried across Monument Drive in the East Hill section.

How her shattered headstone ended up in the African American Grounds, beneath the very large headstone belonging to Samuel Flood is not known. It is my best guess that her headstone, made of a thin marble tablet, was broken and covered over time. When dirt was needed to fill around the Flood monument, workmen went to the Wellborn plot to get some, scooping up pieces of her headstone in the process.

Other items we find whilst digging around have included pottery and glass shards and historic bricks.

Challenging and rewarding projects
The African American Grounds has fewer retaining walls, smaller headstones, and decidedly less hardscape objects in general than most of the other sections at Oakland. Though this is not to say that we haven’t had our share of challenges and rewarding projects.

Box tombs and ledgers stones are two of the more difficult monument types to repair and re-set, and doing so is quite time-consuming. Ledgers are large slabs (eight feet long by three feet wide, and between two and four inches thick) that are placed at ground level. Over time they usually begin to sink, as soil over a grave shaft subsides.

Ledgers before repair (left) and after (right)

The same occurs with box tombs. Box tombs are composed of four “rails” and a ledger that sits on the top. Luckily for us, all of the box tombs in this section are “low profile”- meaning they only rise up about six inches off the ground. Many box tombs in other parts of Oakland are about two feet tall.

Ashley Shares using a soft mortar to level the rails of a box tomb.

Re-setting either of these items begins with removing the ledger stone by way of padded crowbars and wood blocks. A “rowing” motion is used to slowly move the ledger away from the grave site. If we are working with a box tomb, the ledger stone is placed on top of wood blocks so that the bottom is lifted a few inches off the ground.

Markers before repair (top) and after (bottom)

In the case of a box tomb, the rails are then removed by two individuals and set carefully aside on level ground. The ground where the monument belongs is then prepped. For ledgers, we dig a five-inch deep square hole and pour a four-inch thick concrete footer.

For box tombs, we create a rectangular frame, two inches wider than the width of the rails, and pour concrete four inches thick within that frame. Once the concrete hardens overnight, a thin layer of lime mortar is spread over the concrete and the ledger or the rails are re-set.

For ledgers, we are often able to “row” the ledger back into place without having to use any hoisting equipment. For box tombs, though, the ledger is hoisted back onto the rails using evenly placed nylon straps, a chain hoist, and scaffolding. Box tombs and ledgers can take two or more days to complete sometimes, making them an expensive and intense project. In Phase 1, we completed five box tombs and five ledgers.

We look forward to moving on to Phase 2 of restoration in February.

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.

PRO Team Field Notes: Mission Critical

By Ashley Shares, Preservation Manager

In January the Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team completed the first wave of 2018’s critical restoration. Critical restoration’s goal is to identify fragile, dangerous, or visually intrusive monuments and walls and mitigate the problem before they cause harm or break. Our projects ranged from tab-in-socket headstones to a 20-foot-tall obelisk that broke during Hurricane Irma.

Tab-in-socket headstones are often small and may seem insignificant. However, the stress on the point where the headstone inserts into the socketed base can be very great when the stone begins to sink and lean over time. If left untreated, these headstones will often break in a way that is difficult to repair. To prevent this, we first carefully removed the headstone without putting pressure on the joint. We laid the stone on its side, stabilizing it against a padded object. Next, we removed the base and leveled the soil beneath it. We add a thin layer of rough gravel to facilitate drainage and place the base back in the ground, ensuring it remains level. Next we lined the socket with lime mortar to help the headstone sit firmly inside. The headstone is then placed carefully back into the socket and more lime mortar is added to fill in the gaps between stone elements. Once the mortar has partly dried, it is brushed to create a clean edge.

A leaning tab-in-socket headstone before repair in Block 43, Lot 3 of the cemetery.

Tab-in-socket headstone after repair.

Obelisk repair in progress in Block 243, Lot 2 of Oakland Cemetery.

To repair the large obelisk, three stories of scaffolding were first set up with an aluminum I-beam and trolley at the top. The PRO Team hoisted the broken pieces of the obelisk’s shaft with nylon straps and a 1-ton chain hoist on top of one another. Pieces of colored wax were placed between the pieces to mark where holes would be drilled. Using masonry drill bits, four holes were drilled into each broken end, and the holes were thoroughly cleaned out with an air compressor. Three-eighth inch stainless steel rods and masons’ epoxy were inserted into the holes. Then we fitted the pieces back together one at a time, with ample time for each layer to “set up.” The urn that was broken off the top of the obelisk was repaired off-site and returned to the top of the monument, where we secured it with a smaller stainless steel rods and epoxy.

This spring or summer, the PRO Team will focus on a second round of critical restoration, concentrating on walls and box tombs.

You can make a financial contribution to Oakland’s critical restoration projects in person at the Visitors Center & Museum Shop, located at the Bell Tower. Or donate online by clicking here. On the online donation page, be sure to select “Critical Restoration Fund” from the designation drop-down menu.

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.

PRO Team Field Notes: Restoring the McKinley Lot

By Dr. DL Henderson and Ashley Shares

Jacob McKinley’s monument, which is leaning significantly.

The headstone belonging to Jacob McKinley is located in Phase 1 of the African American Grounds restoration project. It is a pedestal-style monument, composed of multiple units of marble “freely” stacked, one on top of another, without any pins or dowels holding them in place.

This monument was leaning at a significant angle and its stabilization with a high priority. The Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team hand-removed the urn and other small elements. We set up scaffolding to dismantle the larger pieces, which were lifted with a trolley and chain hoist attached to an aluminum I-beam. Each piece was braced with a nylon strap and carefully moved several feet away.

The sub-base supports a monument below ground and isn’t intended for viewing. Mr. McKinley’s monument sub-base is composed of brick, slate, and other stones; small marble slabs; and general rubble held together with a soft mortar. Because the monument had been so un-level, we decided to remove the sub-base and create a completely new one. This new sub-base was made from reinforced concrete.

After repair, the monument is properly aligned.

After giving the sub-base 24 hours of dry-time, we poured a soft mortar mix on top and each of the marble blocks were re-stacked. Pieces of angled lead were placed between layers to help space them evenly, and to allow for a “joint” that could later be filled with a soft mortar grout. The purpose of such grout is to prevent water penetration that may lead to stone deterioration.

Jacob McKinley was a formerly enslaved carpenter who amassed a small fortune after his emancipation. He owned several businesses and became one of the wealthiest African American men in Atlanta by the 1890s. When the Atlanta Constitution reported McKinley’s death in January 1896, the obituary described his wealth and philanthropy and lamented the loss of a good citizen.

Born into slavery in Newnan, Georgia circa 1830, McKinley had prospered in post-Civil War Atlanta and gained a reputation among local businessmen for industry and integrity. By his own reckoning, McKinley apparently had a rough upbringing, but at age 16 while still enslaved, he was apprenticed as a carpenter. No doubt because of his outstanding carpentry skills, in 1853, McKinley was sold for $1,550. However, as a freedman his personal worth would quickly eclipse his monetary value as a slave.

After gaining his freedom, McKinley demonstrated that his skills were not limited to manual labor. Over the years, he developed several successful businesses and at times employed over 150 laborers—white and African American. He became a prosperous merchant, real estate owner, and a dealer in wood and coal; he owned a brickyard, a grocery store, and a large amount of real estate. He donated a piece of land to start a Baptist church named in his honor, “McKinley’s Chapel.”

McKinley’s death is noted in the January 24, 1896 Atlanta Constitution

Jacob McKinley extended his investments beyond real estate in 1886 when he joined other African Americans in securing a charter to establish the South-View Cemetery Association. South-View provided an alternative burial ground for African Americans who did not want to be buried in the segregated grounds at Oakland or Westview cemeteries. In 1890 McKinley and Oakland residents Henry Rucker, Thomas Goosby, C. C. Cater, and Nicodemus Holmes, along with other African American investors, established the Georgia Real Estate Loan and Trust Company. The new business offered yet another opportunity for economic advancement for McKinley and the other investors, while providing much needed business financing for their African American customers.

According to scholar Rev. E. R. Carter, in 1888 McKinley paid taxes on $40,000. McKinley owned 12 shares of stock in South-View Cemetery, valued at $900. It may seem ironic to some that McKinley is not buried at South-View, but he had purchased his family lot at Oakland in 1879 to bury 6-month-old Joseph McKinley. The McKinley family apparently was unwilling to disinter the infant and two other previously interred family members to move them to South-View. Like many African American families in Atlanta, the McKinleys continued to use their family lot and buried multiple generations of family members together at Oakland.

Jacob McKinley listed among the founders on a monument at South-View Cemetery.

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.

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

Ashley Shares is Preservation Manager at Historic Oakland Foundation.

Note: Jacob McKinley’s biographical information is excerpted from Dr. Henderson’s forthcoming book, South-View: An African American City of the Dead. It will be published in January 2018.

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

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

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

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

The African American Grounds restoration project began this January, six months after HOF completed a ground-penetrating radar survey of the area. Historically, African American burial traditions utilized natural markers like wood, shrubbery, or flowers, which have been lost through the passage of time. Therefore, much of this section of Oakland Cemetery is bereft of headstones or other visual markers.

To determine what lies beneath, HOF partnered with Atlanta-based remote sensing firm Bigman Geophysical for a technologically-advanced survey of the American Grounds. That survey found nearly 900 probable unmarked burials in the area.

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

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

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

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

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

PRO Team Field Notes: Stone Benders

By Ashley Shares, Preservation Manager

Headstone before the PRO Team’s work.

When you think of stone, what words come to mind? Strong? Solid? Inflexible? Well, a walk through Oakland Cemetery will show you that these adjectives aren’t always true of headstones. Thin, upright marble tombstones are especially fragile. They are prone to breaking, whether it be from a fallen tree branch, being knocked over by vandalism, or the slow effects of gravity. Sometimes, however, instead of cracking, marble does something incredible: it bends.

Yes, believe it or not, if exposed to the right conditions over a very long period of time, marble can slowly bow. This usually occurs when the stone is in a horizontal position. Examples include a tombstone that has fallen, or a box tomb with a marble ledger stone. In the case of a tombstone, if the ground beneath it is not level, gravity will exert more force on less supported areas, pushing them down, while supported areas will remain in one position. This usually breaks the stone eventually, but in rare instances like one stone the PRO Team just worked on, it bends it instead.

John Butler died in 1882 and is buried in Lot 1, Block 302 in the East Hill area at Oakland. His is not the only burial on the lot, but it is the only one marked. The restoration of Block 302 is part of the PRO Team’s critical restoration efforts this year, due to its extremely deteriorated overall conditions which include entirely tumbled-down walls as well as Butler’s bowed headstone.

In order to re-set the tombstone, it had to be stabilized. When a piece of marble bends in this way, the stone loses its strength in the curved area. If the stone were to stand upright, gravity would put press heavily on the curve, possibly causing a break. Leaving the stone horizontal and building a concrete pad for it to rest on was another option we explored. We ultimately abandoned this option because it would allow water accumulation on the headstone’s face, causing more rapid deterioration of the already-faded carvings. Since an upright position was the best bet for saving stone’s historic elements, what we needed to do was prevent pressure from building on the high point of the curve once the stone was back up.

Lightweight bracing on the headstone.

What we did was design a lightweight brace of stainless steel and aluminum that hugs the monument tightly on the sides, both above and below the high point of the curve. Padding supports the curves and prevents the steel from damaging the monument. First, we dug a nearly 3 foot hole and embedded a hollow squared aluminum pole in a concrete anchor. This part acts as the brace’s “spine”. When the concrete was dry, the pieces of the brace were attached to the frame (“ribs”).  The headstone was carefully lowered into the hole directly in front of the spine and the pieces of the brackets were clamped on the sides above and below the curve. All bolts were tightened and we backfilled the hole with soil. Every few years, the foam will need to be replaced but the brace should last many decades because all materials used are non-rusting.

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 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

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

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

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

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.