Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mixed Use: The Historic Cemetery that Feels Like A Public Park

Posted by Debby and Hubert Yoder, ALTANTA, GA -- Oakland Cemetery,  right in the heart of Atlanta's Grant Park neighborhood and not far from downtown, was established in 1850 before the concept of public parks had emerged. Back then people would go to the cemetery to picnic, spend time outside and enjoy nature. Oakland has extensive pathways that wind through each section allowing one to observe the changes in Atlanta over time and the different customs to honor those who have passed. 

Designed during the period when slavery was the local practice, the cemetery was divided into separate sections for whites and Blacks. The white section is near the front with family plots featuring huge markers erected in tribute. The African American section is near the back of the original six-acre site. Blacks were typically buried without personal information, listed instead under the name of their master, many on wooden headstones that have not survived. Nearby is the open green space of Potter’s Field, where the poor were buried. 

Oakland has a large Jewish section were the graves are crowded together and feature tall headstones written in Hebrew. Many have stones left behind by visiting family members. The cemetery population grew rapidly during the Civil War and several acres were added to accommodate the soldiers who died. After the war, a number of tributes were erected. There is a Bell Tower, complete with gun turrets, to mark the spot where the Confederate commander watched the Battle of Atlanta; an obelisk, once the tallest structure in Atlanta, to mark the Confederate section; and a lion statue that guards the tombs of the unknown soldiers. In this area, the dead were buried in mass graves, sometimes because their names were not known, at others because the numbers of people who died were simply too great to accommodate individually. At the edge of this plot sit a few individual headstones erected by family members long after the war. 

Not long ago three generations paid tribute on the 150th anniversary of their ancestor’s death. The family brought a replica of his uniform jacket, made from the only known photo of him, a confederate flag and flowers to remember the young man who died of smallpox contracted during training, never having made it to battle.

Many of Atlanta’s prominent citizens are buried here including Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor and architect of many key changes in the operations of the city, Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, golfer Bobby Jones, and Bishop Wesley John Gaines, founder of Morris Brown College.

Oakland hosts a number of events each year including Sunday in the Park when the mausoleums are opened and a costume contest held. Volunteers dress as those interred and tell their life stories. Halloween brings evening ghost tours and a Run Like Hell 5k. Recent redevelopment in the area has brought many new residents and the cemetery has the feel of a public park once again. Many neighbors jog, walk their dogs, or lounge in the green space Oakland provides. The cemetery is protected by brick walls and a sizable archway entrance. To cross under it is to escape into another world, reminiscent of stepping into New York’s Central Park from bustling Manhattan. 

Debby Yoder is a Contributor to Social Shutter as well as a student at Georgia State University majoring in Sociology. She can be contacted at Hubert Yoder is Debby's father and retired after working in information systems at McDonnell Douglas, EDS, and IBM. Photography is now his work and hobby. He can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment