Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery wants to identify its dead

On Saturday, the Historic Oakland Foundation hosts a Juneteenth program featuring guided walking tours of the African-American grounds. There will be two tours for adults at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. A tour for children is at noon. African-American burial records will be available, too. The free program runs from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The cemetery also hosts a twilight tour of the African-American grounds Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Oakland Cemetery is at 248 Oakland Ave. SE, Atlanta.

Neale Nickels stepped slowly, his shadow long across the green field.

“There’s a body there,” he said. Nickels pointed to a spot marked by a piece of orange surveyor’s tape no larger than a quarter. “There’s a body over there. And there and there and there.”

Bodies lying in anonymity. They're the remains of nearly 900 African-Americans buried on a three-acre site at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. None has a marker. Nickels, the cemetery's director of historic preservation, hopes to put some names to the sites.

The Historic Oakland Foundation recently hired specialists to probe the area with ground-penetrating radar to determine where bodies lay. In a four-day period, they counted 872 probable grave sites.

On Saturday, the cemetery is conducting tours of the site, plus sharing burial records with visitors. They hope to locate descendants of some these long-time Oakland residents. The open house underscores the cemetery's observance of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the South. Oakland's Juneteenth celebration will take place from 10:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. and is free.

The Juneteenth observance — Oakland’s first — may help fill in the gaps in some records in Atlanta’s oldest public park, Nickels said. While the cemetery has an extensive list of names, it’s not complete, especially the records on the African-American section. Some plots never had markers. Other plots’ monuments got moved, and now await restoration to the sites where mourners originally erected them.

“This is important,” Nickels.

The section opened in 1866. For more than a century, people of color gathered at the crest of a hill in the heart of the 48-acre cemetery to inter their loved ones. Some used stones; others marked the graves with wooden monuments. At other sites, they planted bushes or left significant items — a toy for a dead child, perhaps, or a beloved grandmother’s favorite hairbrush. Sometimes, they left only prayers.

But stone monuments can go missing, and wooden markers are hardly permanent. Bushes can be mowed down without regard to their original purpose. Toys and hairbrushes somehow vanish. In time, the sites where the living consigned the dead to Glory were notable only for their anonymity. People would walk the tract and wonder: Who rests here?

It's a question Daniel Bigman has asked countless times. His company, Bigman Geophysical, conducted the search at Oakland's African-American tract. He has visited cemeteries across the Southeast, his work embracing the passage of centuries. At the Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, Bigman discovered graves dating to 1000 to 1200 AD.

Bodies, said Bigman, are “all over” — some in graveyards, of course, but others resting in field and forest. Some, like those in Oakland’s African-American section, are buried close together. His April probe was slow work.

“There were hundreds of graves per acre,” he said.

That means hundreds of stories. D.L. Henderson is keen to know them all. A member of the cemetery foundation’s board of directors, Henderson has been studying Oakland’s original African-American burial records for nearly two decades.

In 1937, Henderson said, employees of the Works Progress Administration, a Depression program that employed millions, visited the cemetery. They catalogued names, drew burial-site maps and asked residents: Do you know who is buried there?

Their efforts, Henderson said, helped identify some of the graves in the African-American section. But those workers were hardly infallible.

“Record-keeping, over the years, has not been that good in Oakland’s past. There’s always human error,” she said. “It’s great that we’re doing this.”

Great and overdue, said Nickels. On a recent afternoon, he stopped and studied a tombstone leaning against another. At one time, it marked the final resting place of Carrie B. Taylor, who died in 1950. It somehow got separated from its grave site. He ran a finger across its hand-made concrete surface.

“Someone really cared,” Nickels said. He patted the stone. “We’ll find her.”

Just then a breeze moved across the ground where the nameless dead lay. The magnolias and water oaks whispered as it passed.