by Tracy L. Barnett
African-American cemeteries across the South are vanishing—not from descendants’ memories, but from the physical landscape itself. For decades, infrastructure development and urban renewal projects have disrupted the final resting places of Black men, women, and children. Across the United States, but especially in the South, white city and university leaders have knowingly and unknowingly disinterred Black bodies, destroyed gravestones, and repurposed cemetery grounds. In other instances, lack of perpetual care has allowed the landscape itself to strangle the dead. Ivy, kudzu, wisteria, and other fast-growing plants choke fieldstone, marble, and granite tombstones—all but obscuring them from the view of a well-meaning passerby or curious descendant. These mournful yet meaningful public spaces are critically endangered.
In November 2015, the University of Georgia unearthed human remains, part of a skull and a jawbone. In total, 105 gravesites of unknown individuals—formerly-enslaved African Americans—were ‘discovered’ and disturbed during an expansion project on Baldwin Hall.1 This should not have been a surprise discovery: the land abutted the Old Athens Cemetery on Jackson Street and, as members of African-American community remember, these grounds had long been used as a burial common.2 Tombstones of wealthier white residents prevented encroachment, but the unmarked graves of formerly enslaved African-Americans had no such protections. Again and again, then, their bodies were dug up as the campus community expanded. In 1886, the Weekly Banner-Watchman described the “Ghoulish Work”: “we have opened some fifteen or twenty graves, but none of them were marked. . . The graves are so old that all signs of a coffin have disappeared, and only a few decaying bones and black earth tell where the dead one slept.” At the hands of workmen, the bones—those belonging to someone’s beloved wife, mother, or son—“had been gathered together and thrown into a sunken grave near by, and when the work is finished they will be covered in one common mound. . . . We saw mingled together the remains of men, women and children.”3
Those disinterred in 2015 fared no better. Loaded into a Penske truck, the bodies of 105 unknown individuals were transported in boxes (not coffins) and buried at the feet of their former enslavers in Oconee Hill Cemetery, a predominantly white, segregated cemetery. “Please don’t reinter them in secret and rob us of the opportunity to at least witness the solemn moment,” requested Fred O. Smith Sr., an alumni and community leader—himself a descendant of enslaved people.4 The university ignored the Black community’s wishes. The sordid burial affair transpired behind a locked fence; their ancestors could not watch, let alone mourn their dead. The recent Baldwin Hall controversy is a stark reminder of the lasting ramifications of slavery and segregation for both the dead and the living.5
Less than two miles northeast of the University of Georgia’s campus, a historic cemetery sits off Fourth Street. Behind the main gate, the landscape is lush and overgrown. Tombstones of eminent African-American citizens—congressmen, barbers, teachers, and even a “retired capitalist”—emerge from the undergrowth. At the cemetery’s front is the family plot of Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, a wealthy entrepreneur and owner of Athens’s Morton Theatre.6 The simple grave marker of local school teacher Minnie Davis sits in the middle of the cemetery. Enslaved to John Crawford, Davis remembered the Confederacy’s surrender: “the Negroes rallied around the liberty flag pole that they set up near where the city hall is now.” Raising their voices in song, they proclaimed, “’We rally around the flag pole of liberty, The Union forever, Hurrah! Boys Hurrah!’”7 Hidden in the cemetery’s far reaches is the final resting place of Harriet Powers, a formerly enslaved folklorist and seamstress whose “Bible Quilt” is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.8 At one point a centerpiece of the Black community and a historic source of local and national significance, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery is largely forgotten today.
In 1882, the Gospel Pilgrim Society, a black benevolent organization, came together to address a vital community need: “To look after and care for the sick, the indigent, and the destressed among their race; to see to it that the deceased among their number, as well as all others of their race, not otherwise provided for, are properly and decently interred.”9 To achieve that end, the lodge acquired a building on the corner of West Hancock Avenue and Pope Street and a large plot of land, to be “used solely as a burial ground and known as ‘East Athens Cemetery.’”10 From its founding until the early 2000s, members of society and other Black Athenians buried their loved ones within the cemetery’s grounds.
Gradually the cemetery fell into disarray and, after 1960, fewer and fewer people were laid to rest within its geographic bounds. Problems compounded during the 1970s. In 1973, a tornado, “bouncing like a rubber ball,” passed through East Athens, toppling trees and gravestones in its wake.11 Alfred Hill, the last surviving member of the Gospel Pilgrim Society, died of a heart attack in 1977. “Alfred Hill was well thought-of. He was an intelligent man and sold lots in the cemetery. . . . [He] worked right up until he had a heart attack,” recalled an Athens resident in 2003.12 His death marked the end of an era. There had been no long-term arrangement made for perpetual care. Families living nearby did they best they could to maintain their own plots. But nature reclaimed the landscape. By the early 2000s, the cemetery appeared as an overgrown, forested lot.
Recently, white and Black Athenians have begun the arduous work of restoring Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery and recovering the history of the men, women, and children buried within its grounds. In April 2006, the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and, a few years later, the Georgia Historical Society, in conjunction with the East Athens Development Corporation Inc., erected a state historical marker on Fourth Street.13 Students at the University of Georgia, meanwhile, formed the Friends of Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery and held work days at the cemetery, pulling weeds, uncovering gravesites, and clearing pathways. Building upon this work, the Athens Death Project seeks to rehabilitate this physical space as well as research the lives of the decedents.
Efforts—both locally and nationally—are being made to reclaim these sacred African-American burial grounds. Across town, Linda Davis and The Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery are working to restore another of Athens’s historic African-American burial grounds. In Richmond, Virginia and Durham, North Carolina, for example, scholars, activists, and locals have joined forces to prevent the destruction of their local cemeteries. Yet, as the Baldwin Hall Controversy starkly indicates, crucial work remains to be done to ensure a dignified burial and resting place for all Americans, regardless of race, status, or creed. The final resting places of America’s marginalized communities must be preserved and protected. This Black History Month, consider visiting, researching, or helping to restore one of the many endangered cemeteries in your community.
1. The University of Georgia campus newspapers, The Red & Black, offers an excellent timeline of these troubling events. Megan Mittelhammer “Everything you need to know about the Baldwin Hall controversy,” The Red & Black (Aug 15, 2019; Updated Dec 3, 2020).
2. For a history of the Old Athens Cemetery and it’s relation to the Baldwin Hall controversy, see Stephen Berry, “The Baldwin Hall Controversy,” UGA & Slavery (n.d.).
3. The Weekly Banner-Watchman (Athens, Ga.), August 17, 1886.
4. Fred O. Smith Sr., “Smith: UGA acting too quickly on Baldwin Hall remains,” Athens Banner Herald (March 7, 2017).
5. Marc Parry, “Buried History: How Far Should a University go to Face its Slave Past?,” The Chronicle Review (May 25, 2017).
6. Death Certificates, Vital Records, Public Health, RG 26-5-95, Georgia Archives.
7. Minnie Davis, August 29, 1938, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 4, Georgia, Part 1, Adams-Furr (1936), Library of Congress, Manuscript/Mixed Material.
8. “1885 – 1886 Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilt,” Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (n.d.).
9. The Banner-Watchman (Athens, Georgia), December 11, 1883.
10. The Banner-Watchman (Athens, Georgia), January 1, 1884.
11. The Red and Black (Athens, Georgia), April 3, 1973.
12. Al Hester, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: An African-American Historic Site (Athens, GA: Green Berry Press, 2004), 25.
13. Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery Council, “General Information Packet for Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery,” pages 12-13, 1938/2009, Digital Library of Georgia.