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 Loran Crabtree

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

Meet Loran Crabtree

Loran serving as a tour guide at Oakland Cemetery.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m 28 years old and born and raised in the metro Atlanta area (Atlanta and Forsyth County.) I’ve been a police officer for the last six years. My family has been in the City of Atlanta since the 1870s. My great, great, great grandfathers on both sides served in the Civil War. My great uncle was an Atlanta police officer who was killed in the line of duty in 1902.

How did you get involved in volunteering at Oakland?
I was interested in local Atlanta history and a friend of mine mentioned Oakland was hosting a volunteer orientation… and the rest, as they say, is history. I volunteer at Oakland because local Atlanta history is very important to me. Having the Crabtree side of my family live and prosper in Atlanta since the 1870s makes it a special place for me. Volunteering at Oakland ensures that the people buried here won’t be forgotten and neither will their stories. Oakland is also a very relaxing place to me. With the stress of my job and life in general, I need an outlet that is relaxing and volunteering at Oakland does this for me.

What do you do at Oakland?
I’m mainly a tour guide but I work in the Visitors Center & Museum Shop, and I work at the Foundation’s special events. I also independently research Oakland and the cemetery’s residents. I love being around the other volunteers and networking with them. I also enjoy meeting the guests who come to Oakland and conversing with them.

What is your favorite Oakland experience or moment?
This would be a tie between portraying a Confederate soldier for the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tour and meeting some of Captain William A. Fuller’s descendants. At Capturing the Spirit of Oakland in 2015, I read the roll call of Confederate dead. I met Capt. Fuller’s descendants one day when I was working in the Visitors Center. A lady came in and as we started talking, it turned out she was Capt. Fuller’s great, great granddaughter. We discussed the Great Locomotive Chase, and she even described to me remembering when the Fuller family cemetery was dug up and moved to make way for a Shoney’s.

If you are interested in volunteering at Historic Oakland Cemetery, want to be considered for our January 2018 new volunteer orientation, or want to know more about what our volunteers do, please e-mail Richard Harker, Director of Special Events and Volunteers, rharker@oaklandcemetery.com or call 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.

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.

Oakland Resident Spotlight: A Fitting Tribute to Mayor Maynard Jackson

by Valerie Richardson Jackson

Mayor Maynard Jackson’s new monument at Oakland Cemetery

On Friday, June 23, the 14th anniversary of his death, former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson’s permanent memorial was unveiled at Oakland Cemetery. Mayor Jackson’s widow Valerie Jackson unveiled the monument during a private family dedication.

The stunning 14.5-foot, 14 ton monument was almost three years in the making. Its African-sourced honed black granite sits on a platform of grey Georgia granite, reflecting the Jackson family’s Georgia heritage. The sub-foundation beneath the grey granite base is solid concrete with multiple layers of rebar, over three feet deep. Four hand-carved solid bronze discs, one on each facet of the crown molding, represent four important aspects of Jackson’s legacy:

  • The City of Atlanta: Maynard Jackson was second only to Mayor William Hartsfield in his longevity as mayor of Atlanta. After one term as vice-mayor he served three terms as mayor. He was the youngest and first African American mayor of a major southern city.
  • The Scales of Justice: This seal represents Jackson’s commitment to social and economic justice for everyone. Equal opportunity was mandated in all of his administrations. He has been called “The Martin Luther King of Affirmative Action.”
  • The Olympic Rings: The U.S. Olympic Committee considered it an honor to grace Maynard Jackson’s memorial with the Olympic Rings, recognizing his Olympic spirit and his role in bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta.
  • The Atlanta Airport: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has consistently been the busiest, most-traveled airport in the world. In 2003, following Jackson’s death, the airport’s domestic terminal was renamed Hartsfield-Jackson to commemorate Mayor Jackson’s contributions. He played an integral role not only in the airport’s construction, but its joint venture program that demanded the inclusion of minorities and women in airport contracts. Prior to Jackson’s first administration, fewer than half of 1 percent of municipal contracts went to minorities and women. It grew to 25 percent under Jackson’s leadership. In 2012 the airport’s new international terminal was also named in his honor.

The previous headstone at Mayor Jackson’s grave

The Jackson monument is surrounded by lush ivy that had spontaneously appeared around his original headstone. Historically, ivy has symbolized strength, endurance, and determination. One of Maynard Jackson’s strongest attributes was his determination. Engraved on one side of the monument is the first line of Jackson’s favorite poem, “Will,” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. The poem speaks of a determined soul and it was only through his determination that the new airport was built. Maynard Jackson succeeded in moving I-85 to create the necessary land needed for the new domestic terminal.

“I don’t know about mountains, but he can definitely move highways!” said Valerie Jackson.

Mrs. Jackson designed the monument and her brother, Monte Richardson who is a visual artist and was a WXIA 11 Alive news photographer for over 28 years. Brook Bolton, president and CEO of Roberts-Shields Memorial Company, produced and supervised the monument’s installation.

Mrs. Jackson said the monument was not only a tribute to the man whose honor, courage and vision created a new Atlanta, but also her personal tribute to their love and devotion to each other for over a quarter of a century. Her ultimate goal was to build a fitting tribute to this exceptional man that would stand for centuries to come.

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.

Oakland Remembers World War I: Sen. Christopher C. Wimbish

Headstone for Lt. Christopher C. Wimbish at Oakland Cemetery

Headstone for Lt. Christopher C. Wimbish at Oakland Cemetery

One hundred years ago on April 6, Congress declared war on Germany and the United States officially entered World War I. Over four years, the total number of military and civilian casualties in the Great War climbed to over 38 million, with over 17 million killed and 20 million wounded. The United States mobilized over 4 million military personnel, a group that included many Atlantans. More than 500,000 Georgia men registered for the Selective Service Act and the state was home to more training camps than any other in the country. Several WWI veterans and citizens involved in the effort are buried at Oakland Cemetery.

Beginning in April and through Nov. 11, 2018 – the centennial of the WWI armistice – HOF will recognize the Oakland residents who served in World War I in a new blog series, “Oakland Remembers World War I.”

Lt. Christopher C. Wimbish was born in Atlanta on Feb. 6, 1895. His parents were Christopher C. Wimbish Sr., a customs collector, and Maggie Baker Wimbish, a leading Atlanta educator. Wimbish attended Houston Street Public School in Atlanta and received a degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. He returned to Atlanta and worked as a life insurance agent. When war was declared in spring 1917, he volunteered for service in the infantry. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant and served with the 366th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, an African American infantry division formed with soldiers from across the United States. According to military records, the 366th regiment saw action in Alsace, the Argonne Forest, and Lorraine. After peace was reached in November 1918, Wimbish remained in France for several months. He returned to America aboard the Aquitania in February 1919 and was honorably discharged in April 1919.

Officers of the United States Army's segregated 366th Infantry Regiment on board the Aquitania, enroute home from World War I service. Left to right: Lieutenant C.L. Abbot, South Dakota; Captain Joseph L. Lowe, Pacific Grove, California; Lieutenant Aaron R. Fisher, Lyles, Indiana, recipient of Distinguished Service Cross; Captain E. White, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

Officers of the United States Army’s segregated 366th Infantry Regiment on board the Aquitania, en route home from World War I service. Left to right: Lieutenant C.L. Abbot, South Dakota; Captain Joseph L. Lowe, Pacific Grove, California; Lieutenant Aaron R. Fisher, Lyles, Indiana, recipient of Distinguished Service Cross; Captain E. White, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

After the war Wimbish attended Northwestern University law school in Chicago. He graduated in 1925 and was admitted to the Illinois Bar. He became a member of the legal firm of Temple, Brown, and Harewood. In 1927, Wimbish was named Assistant State’s Attorney. He held this post until 1931, and later served as counsel for the City of Chicago. After making his name as a prominent attorney, Wimbish entered Chicago’s political arena. Originally a Republican, Wimbish switched to the Democratic Party and campaigned to be the Democratic nominee for the Illinois State Senate in 1938. Unsuccessful in 1938, he was elected to the Illinois State Senate from the Third District in 1942 and served until 1954. After his time as a senator, Wimbish became a trustee of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago in 1958.

He held this position until his death on December 27, 1962, and Sen. Christopher C. Wimbish was buried in Oakland’s African American Grounds in the Wimbish family lot.

Oakland Resident Spotlight: Rev. Rufus H. Houston

by Dr. DL Henderson and Ashley Shares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. R. H. Houston

Rev. R. H. Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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


As HOF begins planning for the African American Grounds hardscape and landscape restoration, community engagement and support is critical. You can make a financial contribution to the restoration project in person at Oakland Cemetery’s Visitors Center & Museum Shop, located at the Bell Tower. Or donate online by clicking here. On the online donation page, be sure to select “African American Section” from the designation drop-down menu. Visit our African American Grounds page to learn about this restoration project in-depth. 

Oakland Resident Spotlight: Gov. Hoke Smith and Ending Convict Labor Leasing in Georgia

by Andrew Fowler, Education Program Intern

Georgia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an explosion in the population and economic growth. In Atlanta, civic and business leaders strived to transform the city into the industrious and progressive capital of the “New South.” Across Georgia, new industries and the development of manufacturing centers diversified the state’s primarily agrarian economy. These economic developments demanded human capital, and Georgia’s prisoner population emerged as a source for cheap labor. As the practice of convict labor leasing took hold in Georgia, it became evident that progress came with a human and social cost.

Convicts leased to harvest timber.

Convicts leased to harvest timber.

Under this system, states could lease out convicted prisoners to work for local planters, entrepreneurs, and industrialists for a fee. The employers were then responsible for feeding and housing the prisoners. While the convict leasing system was immensely profitable to both state governments and private companies who used the cheap forced labor, prisoners suffered under dismal and dangerous working conditions. Under the initiative and influence of progressive Gov. Hoke Smith, Georgia ended convict leasing in 1908 through a series of events that intertwined with the stories of several Oakland Cemetery residents.

Convict leasing was employed for nearly a century across the United States, but it maintained a firm concentration in many southern states. First institutionalized in Alabama in 1848, the practice lasted in some form until President Franklin D. Roosevelt permanently abolished it in 1942. Although both white and black prisoners were impacted by convict leasing, blacks were overwhelmingly targeted as a labor source through institutionalized discrimination. Black Codes – restrictive laws enacted after the Civil War to suppress and essentially criminalize black life – caused a significant number of African Americans to be arrested for minor, and in several cases non-existent, infractions. Vagrancy laws were particularly unethical, making it legal for police to round up, arrest, and indenture African Americans for simply being (or appearing to be) unemployed.

Many wealthy and influential Georgia entrepreneurs benefited immensely from this system. Several of these entrepreneurs and businessmen buried at Oakland Cemetery include developer Joel Hurt, former Atlanta mayor James English, and former Gov. Joseph Brown. Convict leasing was used throughout the south, but eyewitness accounts of the brutal working conditions at Georgia mines, mills, and factories eventually transformed public and even some political opinions to object to convict leasing.

Gov. Hoke Smith

Gov. Hoke Smith

Oakland resident Gov. Hoke Smith, a local and national champion of progressive policies, led the political front in working towards the dissolution of the convict leasing system. Smith was born in North Carolina on September 2, 1855, and was raised in Chapel Hill where his father was a professor at the University of North Carolina. In 1868 the family moved to Atlanta, where Smith flourished academically. He passed the bar examination at 17, and soon rose to prominence as an attorney by representing the workers and passengers of railroad companies in injury suits. Smith married Marion Cobb in 1883, and the couple had five children together.

In 1887, Smith purchased the Atlanta Journal newspaper. Under his leadership the Journal rose to be one of Georgia’s largest newspapers, rivaling the Atlanta Constitution. Smith used the newspaper to promote Grover Cleveland during his successful presidential campaign in 1892, and he was rewarded with a place in the Cleveland cabinet as the Secretary of the Interior. In 1906 Smith entered and won the Georgia gubernatorial race and he proved to be a progressive governor. He enacted railroad regulations, increased education spending, established a juvenile court system, and eventually abolished the convict labor leasing system.

Gov. Smith's final resting place at Oakland Cemetery.

Gov. Smith’s final resting place at Oakland Cemetery.

As more reports concerning the corruption and inhumane conditions in the convict labor leasing system surfaced, Gov. Smith led a public forum at Atlanta’s Grand Opera House. Over 2,000 people heard speeches concerning the injustices perpetuated by the leasing system, and the forum sparked a frenzy of newspaper editorials across the state and nation that expressed support for dismantling the system. Following the forum Gov. Smith held a special legislative session, where he authorized a public referendum that overwhelmingly supported ending the convict labor leasing system.

After his term as governor, Smith served as a U.S. senator and promoted both agricultural assistance programs and increasing education funding. These causes, in addition to his role in abolishing the convict leasing system, solidified Gov. Smith’s position as one of Georgia’s leading progressives during the turn of the century.


To learn more about the many governors, mayors, legislators, and more who lie in rest at Oakland Cemetery, attend the “Sights, Symbols, and Stories of Oakland” guided overview tour, which is offered every weekend at 2 p.m.

Symbolism at Oakland Cemetery: From the Cradle to the Grave

by Ashley Shares, Preservation Specialist

An example of a cradle-style grave at Oakland Cemetery.

An example of a cradle-style grave at Oakland Cemetery.

Bedstead monuments were very popular grave markers in the 19th and early 20th century. A bedstead is composed of a headstone, footstone, and cradling. These elements represent the headboard, footboard, and bed rails on a bedframe. This style of grave marker appealed to Victorian-era sentiments for three reasons.

First, heaven was likened to “returning home,” which was comforting to loved ones left behind because they could hope for a future where they were eternally reunited. A bed is a natural symbol of home. Second, the 19th century witnessed a phenomenon referred to by historians as the “feminization of death.” Public displays of mourning became fashionable, as did more beautiful, peaceful, and pleasant monuments and iconography. The bed is not only a symbol of the home, but of femininity and domesticity.  The third — and the most frequently cited — reason for the bedstead’s popularity is that it likens death to sleep, a notion that undoubtedly eased the sorrows of many mourners.

Bedsteads come in several forms and are made from a variety of materials, depending usually on the purchaser’s economic means, available stone, and current fashions. Headstones may be quite elaborate, often featuring iconography such as lambs or lilies, symbolizing purity and innocence. Most bedsteads at Oakland Cemetery are made of marble, the most popular material for monuments during the Victorian era in Georgia. However, a stroll through the grounds will reveal cast concrete and brick also used to make the cradling portion of a bedstead. 

Recently, Historic Oakland Foundation’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team found two very small and unique bedsteads, which were completely buried under six inches of soil in a lot near the cemetery’s pedestrian entrance on Memorial Drive.

The recently-uncovered brick cradles of two unknown infants.

The recently-uncovered brick cradles of two unknown infants.

These two features, which mark the burial location of two unnamed infants, are both made up of small un-engraved marble headstones and footstones and brick cradling. The discovery of these grave markers is very exciting because only a handful of burials at Oakland Cemetery are marked by bricks. Preserving these sites is extremely important because they represent a folk tradition that is rare in Victorian cemeteries.