Monday, October 26, 2009

The Shame of the Southern Cemeteries

A few years ago, I was traveling through the counties of North Georgia in search of a grave for a client. A long lost uncle had been buried in a Georgia county whose name will remain anonymous. At one stop in the County Clerk’s Office, an employee of the office suggested the grave may have been plowed up and become part of a farmer’s field of corn. At the time, I disregarded the comment as a simple attempt at sarcastic humor. But now, after several years of work in exploring and documenting cemeteries in Georgia, I realize this comment has more than a little bit of truth to it.

It seems as though Georgia cemeteries are often regarded as inconvenient hindrances to developers and urban expansion. Too many times I have encountered stories of cemeteries, some abandoned, some not, that are getting in the way of real estate development and the developers are working with county, or local officials to disrespect the final resting places of our ancestors.

A recent case in point: an African-American cemetery in the ritzy, Atlanta, neighborhood of Buckhead is being threatened by a developer. The cemetery has been abandoned for some time. It is, however, clearly a cemetery. At least one large tombstone is visible from the road. As abandoned property, the city took control of the land because of unpaid taxes. The developer then bought the land with the intention of building high rise condominiums on the property. Descendents of the cemetery residents are currently suing to stop the development. Yet, the simple fact they have to resort to litigation to stop the development is a truly shameful statement about the respect for the dead in the State of Georgia.

Disrespecting the dead is not a recent phenomenon in Georgia. An example from the not too distant past also comes to mind. In the 1970s, Georgia was developing the interstate system through the city of Atlanta. In the construction of the off-ramp for Cleveland Avenue in South Atlanta a cemetery was uncovered. At first, it was believed this cemetery was the remains of an historic slave cemetery. Later it was determined this was the neighborhood cemetery most often referred to as the Gilbert Cemetery with burials as early as 1847. It was an African-American cemetery. After more investigation, archeologists determined the cemetery was a relatively large burial ground; an estimated 700 to 1000 graves existed at one time. With development in the area in the 1960s, portions of the cemetery had been paved over for a liquor store parking lot. And, with the construction of I-75 the remainder of the cemetery had been uncovered.

Today, a memorial plaque, with some stones has been erected in the green space in the clover leaf exit of Cleveland Avenue. The memorial has made an effort to document some of the internments in the Gilbert Cemetery. But most of the dead will forever remain unknown. More than a memorial to the dead of Gilbert Cemetery the plaque at Cleveland Avenue more appropriately highlights the shameful treatment of the dead and the cemeteries in Georgia as they compete with development in the urban south.

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