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Tales from the crypt: Untold stories from Atlanta's oldest cemeteries

This article was originally published in Living Intown’s September/October issue.

“HERE LIES THE REMAINS OF

THOMAS H. CHIVERS, M.D.

OF HIS EXCELLENCE

AS A LYRIC POET

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HIS WORKS WILL REMAIN A

MONUMENT FOR THE AGES…”

Despite the words on his headstone in Decatur Cemetery, Thomas H. Chivers (1809-1858) is so neglected in literary annals that he bears the nickname of “The Lost Poet of Georgia.” A decorative urn that once topped his headstone is also long lost, with Chivers’ grave tucked in a shady corner next to the wall separating the cemetery from the Kroger parking lot.

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Decatur Cemetery is the Atlanta suburb’s biggest green space at 58 acres, a dozen more than Oakland Cemetery. It often features spirited activity by the living, like walking dogs, baby strollers and joggers, according to Cathy Vogel, chair of the Friends of Decatur Cemetery, a volunteer group that gives tours and supports its maintenance and preservation.

Dead men may tell no tales, but the majestic trees and rolling hills of Atlanta’s historic cemeteries hold life stories waiting to emerge.

Here are the stories behind Decatur Cemetery, South-View Cemetery and Oakland Cemetery:

March 20, 2015 Atlanta - Picture shows South-View Cemetery, where Martin Luther King Sr. and John Wesley Dobbs' graves are, during a press preview of Civil Rights Tours Atlanta on Friday, March 20, 2015. During Civil Rights Tours Atlanta, participants go to the site of the famous Atlanta Student Movement Rush Memorial Church, to the graves at South-View Cemetery of Daddy King & John Wesley Dobbs. On stops participants can view up close the house Dr. King lived at the time of his assassination and Coretta raised her four children. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (Hyosub Shin)

Mabel, Essie and Alberta Whitman, South-View Cemetery

South-View Cemetery. 1990 Jonesboro Road. 404-622-539.

In the early 1900s, the Whitman Sisters — Mabel, Essie, Alberta and “Baby” Alice — were the longest-running and highest-paid stars of the Black Vaudeville circuit, often called its “royalty.” Three of the four women, none of whom married, as well as their parents, are buried in a family plot at South-View Cemetery, Atlanta’s first owned and operated by African-Americans. On the north side of the original entrance, The Whitmans’ plot is notable for its European design, including a wall and two urns, said Winifred Watts Hemphill, president of South-View Cemetery Association. “It’s not ornate, but probably expensive,” she added.

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After the Civil War, African-Americans were assigned separate, inferior and often overcrowded sections in white-owned cemeteries with further indignities such as having to enter via back gates or wade through swamps to attend funerals. So in 1886, nine black businessmen purchased a large farm at the end of the trolley line and successfully petitioned the state for the charter that founded South-View.

More than 80,000 African-Americans are buried at South-View, including some pillars of the Atlanta black community. Martin Luther King Jr. and Morehouse College founder Benjamin Mays initially were laid to rest here, and King’s parents remain alongside business owners, professors, military heroes, musicians and athletes.

The Whitmans embody the scope of that history, she added. Their father, Rev. Albery Alison Whitman, was the dean of Morris Brown College and dubbed “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

The eldest three sisters started performing in 1899 to both black and white audiences, and by 1904, Mabel was one of the first black women to book and manage a company. Alberta, known as “Bert,” dressed as a man in her act, Essie did the costume design, and “Baby” Alice was renowned for her tap dancing. The Whitmans also were integration pioneers with the clout to require that blacks be allowed to sit in the main audience sections for their shows.

Eliza Street Blake, Oakland Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery. 248 Oakland Ave. 404-688-2107.

Eliza Street Blake didn’t come from one of Atlanta’s most famous families, like the inhabitants of Oakland Cemetery’s elaborate mausoleums. Her plot on the northern side of the road behind Lion Square features no sculptures of weeping angels and isn’t lined by marble or granite, but bricks. Before restoration this spring, the ground was so sunken and overgrown with grass that only a small portion of that border even remained visible, said D.L. Henderson, a board trustee and historian with the Historic Oakland Foundation.

Several thousand of the more than 70,000 people buried at Oakland are African-American, and a current restoration of the African-American Grounds is uncovering both individual histories and the wider story of burial practices before integration. Separate burial from whites lasted until after an Atlanta ordinance outlawed segregation in public spaces in the 1960s.

Because of the use of natural markers such as wood, shrubbery or flowers, many of these graves are lost to the human eye. But a 2016 partnership with Bigman Geophysical, an Atlanta-based remote sensing firm, identified 872 probable unmarked burials in the African-American grounds. The Historic Oakland Foundation has launched a campaign to raise $400,000 for a three-year preservation effort including landscaping, as well as restoring walls, walkways and headstones.

Part of the first phase completed in spring 2017, Blake’s fairly elaborate concrete bed, lined by four layers of brick, stood out among adjoining graves, indicating Blake may have been more affluent, Henderson says.

Such observations inspired Henderson to dig into Blake’s life story. She found census records indicating that Blake worked first as a seamstress and domestic servant but ultimately may have owned a boarding house on Ellis Street. She died from pneumonia after falling down the stairs at her home. She appears to have never married, and an obituary called her “a beloved matron in her community,” while Big Bethel AME Church noted receipt of a bequest from Blake in the generous sum of $1,500.

“I wanted to raise awareness of what we are doing, to not just talk about bricks and mortar,” Henderson says.

Thomas Holley Chivers, Decatur Cemetery

Decatur Cemetery. Main entrance at 229 Bell St. 404-378-4411.

“Nevermore” may be the best known end-word in all poetry, forever associated with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” But in a letter to a literary journal editor after Poe’s death, Thomas Holley Chivers claimed the famous poet “stole all his ‘Raven’ from me.”

Poe published “The Raven” in 1845, but Chivers closed all six stanzas with “No, never more” in his “Lament on the Death of My Mother” (1839) and used “For evermore” in “To Florence Allegra in Heaven” (1842). The two poets share a startling amount of language and rhythmic parallels in multiple poems, though who copied who is up for scholarly debate.

Chivers would have been 14 years old when Decatur was founded in 1823, before the city of Atlanta. Decatur Cemetery’s oldest headstone dates to 1827 and Vogel has an extensive knowledge of thems, including their enduring mysteries and recent renovations. For example, a broken headstone belonging to Enoch Morgan (died 1848) was found in a Decatur yard and recently reunited with its base.

All but forgotten today, Chivers is one of the cemetery’s most esteemed residents, and despite his plagiarism charges, was one of Poe’s most passionate advocates, even striving to help the writer find publishers. Poe called Chivers “one of the best and one of the worst poets in America.”

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A final mystery surrounds Chivers’ original burial by the front steps of his gothically titled Decatur home, Villa Allegra, which local legend tells was so his wife Harriett would never be unfaithful. In his will, Chivers does not address his wife’s fidelity but requested his body be buried by their house where she continued to live.

Villa Allegra, once near Agnes Scott College, no longer stands, but a plaque acknowledging Chivers and the house can be found in front of the Decatur Public Library at 215 Sycamore St.

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