But beyond the trees and on the forest floor, which is choked with shrubs, bushes and weeds, lies the 197-year-old Piney Grove Cemetery, where more than 300 Black people, many of them slaves, were buried.
As children, Audrey Collins and her sister Rhonda Jackson played among the graves of more than 30 of their family members. Now, they can’t find the graves of their grandfather and brother.
The sisters, along with Beth Marcus, who grew up in the neighborhood adjoining the cemetery, make up the nonprofit Friends of Piney Grove Cemetery, a tiny grassroots committee fighting to clean up the burial ground.
But there is a dispute over who is responsible for maintaining the site.
“They don’t want it cleaned up,” Collins said of the Bluffs at Lenox. “It’s a nice wooded area and everybody likes the trees and the foliage. If I had my druthers and lived here, would I prefer to have a scenic view of the woods or cemetery? Hopefully, it can be restored to something that is as beautiful so that people can come and walk around and honor these souls out here.”
A 2017 agreement between the developer and the homeowners association seemed to put the HOA in charge.
Since then, the cemetery has grown wild, while descendants of those buried there, with virtually no resources, have been outmanned by the weeds.
The Buckhead Rotary Foundation has given the group $11,000 to help clean up the cemetery. Some of that money has already been used to hire a herd of goats to eat their way through the burial grounds. But it’s not nearly enough money to rehabilitate and preserve the site.
“This is important because our ancestors are here, and we want them to be in a nice resting place,” Jackson said. “They deserve respect.”
Cemetery roots go back to 1820s
Piney Grove’s cemetery dates back to 1826, when Buckhead was a wilderness. It is one of at least 10 historic cemeteries in Buckhead in various states of repair or preservation.
It rolls from a hilltop down a tree-covered slope toward Lenox Road near the intersection with Canterbury Road.
Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church was condemned in 1948, and members met under the trees or in friends’ homes until a new church was built in 1950. That church partially collapsed in a storm in the 1990s and the Buckhead Coalition helped pay for its demolition.
All that was left was the cemetery, where church members continued to be buried into the 1990s. As recently as 2006, small orange flags stood visible just above the weeds to mark the presumed sites of about 330 graves that were found by archaeologists commissioned by a former developer.
In 2017, new developers picked this prime piece of Atlanta real estate to build 29 then half-million dollar townhomes.
At the time, Collins and several family members ventured out to the cemetery that was in disrepair.
She found the headstone of her grandmother, Lenora Powell Thomas. The headstone was leaning against a tree, about 10 feet from where she was buried.
She never found her grandfather, Joshua Thomas, or brother Stanley Collins, who died in infancy in 1955.
Questions around responsibilities today
There was never any suspicion or claim that the Bluffs at Lenox was built over any graves.
There are no state laws that prohibit development around a historic cemetery, but there are rules in place that protect the burials from disturbance.
According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, “a developer whose project will not impact the actual cemetery is not required by state law to do anything else with regard to it, including cleaning it up.”
At the time, Mike Smith, who was developing the site for JBGL Atlanta Development, said the company followed strict state and local guidelines about building close to cemeteries.
Sam Massell, the late president of the Buckhead Coalition, sent a team of experts to the site to confirm that no graves had been disturbed.
After the construction of the condos, the cemetery, which is part of the property, was turned over to the homeowners association.
Collins said the HOA has not done anything to maintain the cemetery. The HOA says its obligation is not to disturb it.
“Since the 29 townhomes have been occupied, the Piney Grove Cemetery has been maintained in an undisturbed natural state in accordance with the governing documents for the Association,” Erin Murray O’Connell, the HOA’s attorney, wrote in response to questions.
Marcus, who grew up on Canterbury Road and is the daughter of the late Atlanta politician Sidney Marcus, said when Friends of Piney Grove Cemetery recently approached the HOA about maintaining the cemetery, “they seemed surprised.”
“Most people who live in the condos, probably don’t even know what is back there,” Marcus said.
“I don’t think it is malicious,” Marcus said. “They just said, ‘we can’t do it.’ I appreciate that, but there is a responsibility there.”
Tamara Bazzle, the chair of the Buckhead Heritage Society’s Historic Cemeteries committee, where she monitors at least 10 cemeteries in the neighborhood, also thinks the HOA’s responsibilities go beyond not disturbing the site.
“Of all the cemeteries I have worked on, this has weighed on me the most because of how they were taken advantage of,” Bazzle said. “Promises were made, but promises were not kept. It was all about greed, money and land.”
Today, the only way to get to the cemetery is a thin grass strip next to the condo’s security gate. There is no parking or signage indicating where it is.
O’Connell, the HOA’s attorney, said the association pays for landscaping maintenance to access the cemetery. It also pays for an insurance policy for the cemetery.
But inside the cemetery, the brush was so thick on a recent day that it was virtually impossible for Collins and Jackson to walk through it to find their grandparents.
They know approximately where their family members, including her brother, are buried, but there was no way to get to them.
“It’s heartbreaking. When we did a cleanup eight months ago, I was in tears,” Collins said. “Just to see the overgrowth was just heartbreaking. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We got the goats.”
Near the entrance of the cemetery, a dozen female goats, with names like Margo, Harriett, Callie, Autumn and Magenta, and protected by a donkey named Guinevere, lazily munched on mahonia evergreen shrubs.
In just one day earlier this month, they had eaten a path through a nice corner of the cemetery. Their owner, Megan Kibby of Red Wagon Goats of Atlanta, expects them to make a significant dent over the two weeks they expect to be camped there.
“We’re probably not going to see total annihilation of the vegetation here. But the idea is to make this area navigable,” Kibby said. “So that more follow-up work can be done.”
After the goats clean up the floor, Collins hopes to start the process of removing debris to begin the next phase of restoration, which will include stabilizing and cleaning headstones, installing signage and pathways and developing a landscaping plan.
Collins and Jackson still are hoping that the HOA will take an active role in helping maintain the burial grounds. They also plan to seek a historic designation from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, while continuing to apply for grants and donations.
Funds donated to the cemetery are filtered through the Buckhead Heritage Society.
“We have been involved with them for a long time and we want to see that cemetery preserved and the history of that area preserved,” said Richard Waterhouse, the society’s executive director. “It is gonna take getting it back to a point where people can visit it.”
Because of all of the overgrowth, only one headstone is visible. Far away from where the goats are, and against a fence deep inside the condo complex’s gated entrance, is the headstone of Collins’ and Jackson’s grandmother.
Collins leans over the black iron fence and reads: “Lenora Powell Thomas, 1965.”
“It is a miracle that we can see her,” Collins said. “We’re not trying to make it in a pristine condition. “We just want to be able to preserve it and get it into a state where it actually resembles a cemetery so that my ancestors and all the souls that are buried there can rest in dignity. Because this is just heartbreaking.”