‘Praise House’ at Oakland cemetery to celebrate Juneteenth

Artist Charmaine Minniefield’s installation honors 800 Black people buried in unmarked graves

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

To get to artist Charmaine Minniefield’s latest installation honoring more than 800 enslaved people buried in unmarked graves in Historic Oakland Cemetery, you must walk past a wave of headstones of Confederate soldiers.

On a slight hill just yards away, rising above those uniform stone markers is a replica of a praise house, a tiny wooden structure no bigger than a one-car garage. The building harkens to the years before the Civil War, when some enslaved people dared to gather and worship in ways rooted in African tribal traditions. Sometimes they had no shelter other than the canopy of woodland trees. Sometimes they built modest structures like the one Minniefield created. Wherever they gathered, one practice that endured was the ring shout, where people would gather in a circle to sing and shout praises to the heavens, stamping out the rhythm with their feet. The spiritual practice survived the middle passage from Africa but was often outlawed in the U.S. and revived in secret.

“I saw those actions as actions of resistance and against erasure,” Minniefield said recently.

It’s a practice that lives on to this day, from the Georgia Sea Islands to the cities of Brazil, wherever the slave trade deposited Africans in the Americas. Minniefield’s multimedia installation, “Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives,” will amplify that tradition when the praise house replica opens to the public at the cemetery’s African American Burial Grounds on Saturday, June 19, which is known as Juneteenth. The house and a series of performances run through July 11.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Juneteenth is the celebration that began in Galveston, Texas, to commemorate June 19, 1865, when General Order No. 3 was read to enslaved people in that city by a Union Army general, letting them know they were free. The problem was the order was issued almost three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War. So, unknown to them, those enslaved Black people, along with hundreds of thousands of others, had labored in bondage on plantations when they should have been free.

The antebellum period figures prominently into “Remembrance and Resistance,” which is sponsored in partnership with Flux Projects and the cemetery. Three years after the cemetery opened in 1850, along what is now the southern border of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, a small plot was designated to bury the bodies of enslaved Black people. It was called “Slave Square.” The first Black person to be buried there was a 14-year-old child named “John.” No last name was recorded for him and even now the cemetery is searching old ledgers and other records to, if not find his last name, at least to figure out who may have enslaved him, said Marcy Breffle, education manager for Historic Oakland Foundation.

Eight years later, more than 800 bodies of those who’d been enslaved filled the small burial ground. Their graves were often marked with elements that would not stand the test of time, such as wooden slabs or shrubs for headstones. Black people continued to bury their dead in that section of the cemetery until the end of the Civil War, and afterward in a segregated section for Blacks only. But in 1877, the city ordered all of the bodies in the old “Slave Square” to be dug up and reinterred in unmarked graves in a “colored paupers field” within the cemetery. The cemetery remained segregated for nearly a century, ending when Atlanta banned segregation of public facilities in the early 1960s. It wasn’t until 2016 that Oakland began a project to find and mark the graves of the 800 Black bodies that had been moved.

“The foundation has been looking at burial records trying to match up names with bodies,” Breffle said. “We’re trying to prevent the erasure of our Oakland residents.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

With the praise house, Minniefield is trying to honor, and in some ways reclaim those lost 800, she said. C. D. Moody Construction, a Black-owned construction company was contracted to build the structure over an empty lot, with no graves below it, in what is now the historical African American Burial Grounds. For the past several years, Minniefield studied Black worship traditions both at Emory University and on a fellowship to Gambia in 2020. She was tracing her matrilineal line there and studying the origins of ring shouts in Gambia when the pandemic shut down travel and she found herself stranded for months.

“I was stuck by quarantine and turned that into research,” Minniefield said.

There, she recorded and photographed a performance of a ring shout. Those images along with video from other ring shouts from Brazil to Georgia, will be projected against the interior walls of the praise house so visitors feel as though they are in its center. The video’s original score by Atlanta singer Malesha Jessie Taylor and producer Salah Ananse was recorded at First Congregational Church, one of Atlanta’s oldest Black churches.

“It has been fascinating to watch how this project has developed,” said Anne Archer Dennington, executive director of Flux Projects. “And Oakland was immediately receptive to it.”

The house will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Juneteenth, and there will be guided tours of the African American Burial Grounds, which is fitting, Minniefield said.

“Juneteenth was the right moment to celebrate the 800, the African American labor force of this city,” Minniefield said. “We’re reclaiming their narratives that were once lost and setting them free.”


Juneteenth Celebration

“Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives,” by Charmaine Minniefield

10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday (and through July 11). Historic Oakland Cemetery, 248 Oakland Ave. SE, Atlanta. oaklandcemetery.com.