In north Fulton, three work to preserve Black cemeteries, identify unmarked graves

 Johns Creek's Historical Society Board Member Kirk Canaday talks about the Macedonia Cemetery on February 19, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Johns Creek's Historical Society Board Member Kirk Canaday talks about the Macedonia Cemetery on February 19, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Three retired Black men are urging officials in three cities to take action to preserve historic cemeteries where unmarked graves might outnumber those with headstones.

Their work in Roswell, Johns Creek and Doraville involves searching for unmarked graves believed to belong to those who were once enslaved and helped to build each city.

At a cemetery in Roswell dating to the early 1800s, 92 unmarked graves were recently discovered using ground penetrating radar — the smallest was the grave of an infant, according to historian Charles Grogan. The cemetery served worshippers at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, which included enslaved people in its congregation.

“In my records, I’ve got to more than 100,” Grogan, 73, said, of unmarked graves he believes located next to 100 other marked graves.

Grogan’s work with the Roswell Historical Society led to the graves’ discovery. Since the 1990s, he has collected census data, death certificates, obituaries and other information on people throughout metro Atlanta from the 1800s through 1932. His own ancestors came to Roswell as slaves and are buried at the same Pleasant Hill Historical Cemetery.

“That’s so gratifying,” Janet Johnson, head of the Roswell Historical Society’s Cemetery Project said of Grogan’s sleuthing.

Charles Grogan holds a book of historic documents in 2016 that he's collected of his relatives and others at the Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Roswell. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Charles Grogan holds a book of historic documents in 2016 that he's collected of his relatives and others at the Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Roswell. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Grogan is a resource for two other history enthusiasts: Edgar Jones, who maintains the Greater Mount Carmel AME Church Cemetery in Doraville where his ancestors are buried, and Kirk Canaday, a board member of the Johns Creek Historical Society who is leading the preservation project for Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery in Johns Creek.

The trio share information as their respective research leads to people and places that one or the other might know about.

“It’s important because these people paved the way for us,” Jones said.

Last year, Grogan gave Canaday a list of names with information collected on people buried at Macedonia in Johns Creek. The quiet cemetery is located at the top of a hill and only a few yards from busy Medlock Bridge Road. It’s been maintained by the city since 2017.

In November, the Johns Creek City Council approved spending $52,000 to buy the two-acre property, using eminent domain. Records from now defunct Milton County show the property was originally sold in 1905 to Black residents for the church lot. The church building is no longer there and the current property owner is unknown.

A headstone for April Waters who was enslaved by George Morgan Waters. Credit: STEVE SCHAEFER for The AJC
A headstone for April Waters who was enslaved by George Morgan Waters. Credit: STEVE SCHAEFER for The AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The oldest marked grave is dated 1893. Joan Compton, co-founder of the historical society said there are at least 110 unmarked graves at the cemetery. So far her research has found eight graves are people who were born into enslavement.

The cemetery land was originally owned by George Morgan Waters, whose mother was Cherokee and father was from England, Canaday said. Waters owned at least 100 slaves, the historians said.

Different cultures have mixed since slavery, points out Madyun Shahid, a descendent of one of Waters’ slaves, April Waters, who was freed during emancipation and buried at Macedonia in 1910. Shahid has communicated with a descendant of George Morgan Waters in New Jersey for 20 years, he said.

“This can show how much more connected we are than different,” Shahid said of being open to what history brings forth. “We are still glued some kind of way together.”

Student Leadership Johns Creek recently raised more than $3,000 to help repair headstones at Macedonia, Executive Director Irene Sanders said.

The Macedonia Church cemetery has fenced off gravesite space but Canaday said yucca plants and daffodils outside of the fenced area are a sign more unmarked graves could be there — both were often planted to mark a grave.

“You see depressions all over the place if you walk,” Canaday said when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution visited recently. Soft indentations or depressions in the cemetery terrain indicate a person was buried in that spot, he said.

In addition to establishing a memorial garden, Canaday said he wants the city to purchase land adjacent to the cemetery to build a road entrance to the cemetery, clear out trees and debris, restore more headstones and continue to locate unmarked graves. He estimates the cost would be about $1.2 million.

Johns Creek spokesman Bob Mullen said the community will be involved in a future vision for the cemetery. “When acquisition takes place we can move forward with planning and details,” he said.

Johns Creek's Historical Society co-founder Joan Compton and board member Kirk Canaday look over a headstone at Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery. STEVE SCHAEFER for the AJC
Johns Creek's Historical Society co-founder Joan Compton and board member Kirk Canaday look over a headstone at Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery. STEVE SCHAEFER for the AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The smaller Mount Carmel AME Church cemetery on New Peachtree Road in Doraville where Edgar Jones regularly cuts the lawn and maintains the landscape also has dozens of unmarked graves, he said. Grogan is helping to research names of people believed to buried in the cemetery.

The original church building was beside the cemetery but is now located on Carter Drive. The church cemetery is set on green space close to the roadside with no signage. A local civic group has contacted Jones about providing signage, he said.

Jones said he began maintaining Mount Carmel AME Church cemetery in about 2015 when the grass had grown nearly chest high. His grandparents and great grandfather Rev. George Gholston, who was born into slavery and was a co-founder of the church, are buried there.

Grogan, Canaday and Jones said the sense of history and the people buried in the cemeteries add to the importance of honoring them.

Similar to Jones, Grogan rakes leaves and picks up debris at Pleasant Hill Historical Cemetery every few weeks.

“When I go cut the grass, sometimes when I take a break I think all of them are thanking me for what I did,” Grogan said. “It’s interesting the feeling I get when I’m there.”

How it happened

At a cemetery in Roswell dating to the early 1800s, 92 unmarked graves were recently discovered using ground penetrating radar.

Historian Charles Grogan work with the Roswell Historical Society led to the graves’ discovery. Since the 1990s, he has collected census data, death certificates, obituaries and other information on people throughout metro Atlanta from the 1800s through 1932.

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