This October, the Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) celebrates 40 years of restoring and sharing Oakland Cemetery’s 48 acres of gardens, sculpture, and architecture in Atlanta’s oldest public burial ground.
In 1976, concerned descendants formed the foundation to partner with the city to save this historic jewel and encourage its public use. The city owns, manages and maintains the cemetery’s infrastructure, while HOF provides restoration and conducts tours and events.
“That was the genesis of what has become a real juggernaut for the east side – something so special for the neighborhood, city and country,” HOF executive director David Moore said.
Founded in 1850 to accommodate the burial needs of a growing city, Oakland Cemetery was conceived as a place for recreation amidst art.
“In the Victorian tradition, acreage outside of town was purchased to create a cemetery that was also a public park,” Moore said.
This historic landmark is the final resting place for more than 70,000 people – including 27 Atlanta mayors, six governors, 3,000 unmarked Confederate graves, and approximately 7,500 people in Potter’s Field. Famous names, like author Margaret Mitchell, golf legend Bobby Jones, and Morris Brown College founder Bishop Wesley John Gaines are juxtaposed with the unknown.
“[Atlanta historian] Franklin Garrett said this is the most tangible link to our past,” Moore reflected. Garrett is buried here, too.
The municipal cemetery did not provide perpetual care. Over time, most plots had no one left to maintain them.
“By the mid-1970s, the cemetery had really fallen into disrepair. Its gardens were largely gone and theft and vandalism had become serious problems. The cemetery reflected the neighborhood and vice versa,” Moore said.
Thanks to public and private support, HOF has restored eight acres and returned Oakland Cemetery to a desirable destination.
The first work was done near the Bell Tower, which serves as the visitor center and offices for the sexton and HOF staff.
“The gardens are really high style, providing the best examples of how the cemetery could look,” HOF Director of Development Laura Hennighausen said. A $200,000 matching grant from the National Park Service helped fix up 55 nearby mausoleums. HOF then worked on areas near access points, like the original six acres by the Oakland Avenue main gate and Memorial Drive pedestrian gate.
HOF is almost done restoring Georgia’s second oldest Jewish burial ground, thanks in part to a $300,000 grant from The Rich Foundation. German Jewish immigrants were buried in this “forest-like” area with 7-foot markers tightly packed together.
Recovering from the 2008 tornado was a mixed blessing for HOF.
“It set us back a bit but we learned a lot – how to better work with the city, collaborate with partners. It put more visibility on the importance of this historic resource,” Moore said.
Since the tornado, HOF added more tours and more events – like the road race, historically-themed Halloween night tours, and Victorian holiday event. Annually, the cemetery welcomes more than 45,000 visitors.
“We provide something year round for people to come and learn,” Moore said.
Adding back a functional greenhouse in 2015 was a real coup. Oakland Cemetery housed Atlanta’s first greenhouse in the 1870s to sell flowers, lilies for resurrection and palm fronds to indicate triumph. By the 1970s, it was in ruins. But when the Atlanta History Center had to move a greenhouse to make way for the Cyclorama, HOF knew where it could find refuge.
“It came here like an Erector Set – set up within an inch of the original walls. We’re really proud of this greenhouse – it shows what we’re capable of doing,” Moore said.
HOF is conducting a major restoration of the African American grounds. In 1877, hundreds of people of color were exhumed from the original six acres and reburied in another section.
“There are a lot of unmarked graves in the African American grounds. Last year, ground penetrating radar identified 872 potential sites for unmarked graves,” Hennighausen said.
HOF celebrated their 40th with a campaign to raise $40,000 in 40 days for current projects. But it has its eye to the future with work underway on a second master plan.
“As the neighborhood revitalizes, we are pushed to restore the remainder in the next 15 to 20 years instead of the track we’re on which is maybe the next 100 years based on what we’ve been able to raise and accomplish so far,” Moore said.
The plan will likely need increased public and private support.
“The revitalization along the Memorial Drive corridor is in part a result of our work. “We are worth funding not only for the educational and cultural experience unique to Oakland, but also for the economic impact we provide for the city,” Moore said.
For upcoming events and tours or to donate, visit oaklandcemetery.com.
Sunday in the Park is Oct. 1
Thousands are expected to visit Historic Oakland Cemetery on Oct. 1 for the 39th annual fall festival, Sunday in the Park.
Free and open to the public from noon to 6 p.m., Sunday in the Park offers an afternoon full of activity for all ages. Throughout the cemetery, event-goers can link back to Oakland’s Victorian past with a number of activities including: a Victorian costume contest, living history demonstrations, storytelling, guided walking tours, book signings, an artist market and plant sale, horse and carriage rides, descendants research, and much more.
The afternoon also includes musical performances from: Stately Vintage, Penny Serenade, Heidi Pollyea and Friends, The Bow Weevils, The Glory Hounds, Matthias Young, The Ghosts Project, Caledonia Swing, Big Bethel Heavenbound Choir, and more.