Georgia town pays tribute to 1,146 blacks buried in obscurity

Discriminated against in life, they were forgotten by their community in death, buried in unmarked graves in the back of the Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville, Georgia.

The final resting places of the 1,146 black souls who once lived and worked there were anonymous. Though loved ones may have initially marked the spots with a homemade wooden cross or only a rock, the fragile tributes were lost to time.

For generations, segregation kept black and white Gainesville separate and unequal in life and death. On Sunday, those buried in obscurity were revered by the town in a ceremony to unveil a monument to their lives and finally welcome them as fellow residents.

Though their names, birthdates and dates of death remain unknown, six benches, along with a seven-foot, black granite obelisk stand in place of headstones for those interred in sections 16 and 17 of the cemetery.

The obelisk proclaims in gold letters: “This memorial stands as our testament that these citizens are important to this community and we embrace them as our own.”

Mayor Danny Dunagan and Barbara Brooks, Gainesville’s only African-American City Council member, unveiled the monument Sunday. A large crowd gathered at the cemetery for the ceremony as spirituals were sung and tributes were given.

“These are home folks,” said Brooks, who helped lead the effort to establish the memorial. “They’re ours, and we intend to take care of them.”

Alta Vista Cemetery dates back to 1872, and hold the remains of veterans from the Revolutionary and Civil wars — including Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet, a trusted adviser to Gen. Robert E. Lee. The cemetery was segregated until the mid-1960s, and the unmarked graves are believed to date from between the 1870s to the 1950s.

The project was born in 2015 — in the wake of the racially motivated shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — and is the latest effort to memorialize the buried. After being an open secret in town for decades, the full extent of the unmarked graves was discovered a few years ago after the city used ground-penetrating radar to locate them.

Rumor had the number estimated at around 200. More than five times that amount was discovered.

“They just kept finding them over and over,” said Rev. Stuart Higganbotham, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, who went to the cemetery with Brooks after hearing about the unmarked graves.

“I know people at Grace had to have owned slaves,” said Higganbotham, who is white. “I’ve done a few funerals there. There was a time when people weren’t even allowed to be buried together. These were human lives.”

After they were identified, the city placed numbered silver medallions on each of the 1,146 gravesites. But after Charleston, civic and community leaders wanted to do something to foster healing and reconciliation among its citizens. The idea for a memorial at Alta Vista was born.

A committee, consisting mainly of black residents, was formed to come up with a design. They wanted something big and bold that would stand out — but not a monument that would evoke white guilt for the past.

“Nobody living today can be blamed for what happened back then, but it is our duty to acknowledge what happened, and to try to bring attention to a people that really had no way to be recognized,” Brooks said.

Organizers next plan to attempt to find descendants of those buried through historical documents and family Bibles. They encourage anyone who believes they may have a family member who was buried in the segregated sections at Alta Vista to contact the cemetery.

For those who already suspect as much, they will now have a place to grieve with dignity, said Higganbotham.

“Their families can come to continue that physical contact with their loved one,” he said. “In a powerful way, they become alive to us again.”

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