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Balancing Cultural Considerations and Preservation Priorities at a Historic African American Cemetery

Speaker Information: Dr. D L Henderson, Executive Director, Historic South-View Preservation Foundation

This presentation details a case study in preservation treatment alternatives that illustrates the challenge of balancing cultural considerations against the realities of preservation planning and funding at an African American cemetery.

The South-View Cemetery Association was founded in 1886 by formerly enslaved African Americans as an alternative burial ground that was “a respectable place for Christian burials” in segregated Atlanta. Following the style of Victorian era cemeteries, the historic non-perpetual care section of South-View has a terraced garden landscape with traditional 19th century monuments replete with Victorian symbols, yet elements of African American culture—such as the numerous custom stone funeral home markers—give the historic fabric of South-View’s landscape a unique character.

A metro Atlanta area cottage industry for gravestones has provided temporary markers to African American funeral homes for generations. Unlike their contemporary counterparts, these stone markers represent a distinct appearance and style that is readily recognizable wherever they are found. The stones have been produced since the early 20th century by a single family—specifically for African American funeral homes in Atlanta. Consequently, these unique markers can be found only in a relatively small geographic area, within approximately a 45-mile radius of Atlanta. The stones vary somewhat in style and composition, but are typically cast in advance, then customized as needed with an additional molded plaster tablet. The artisanship required for the creation of these markers is evidenced in their singular style of construction.

Preservation efforts are underway at South-View, including the repair and resetting of stones throughout the historic grounds, as recommended by The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes. However, the treatment plan for the repair of the funeral home markers presents issues, both cultural and economic, that challenge the application of common preservation methods and approaches. Originally, these stones were of little cost, intended to be temporary—they represented a service to families and a business marketing tool for the funeral homes to temporarily display the funeral home name to cemetery visitors. However, by today’s cultural standards, these stones are priceless. In almost all cases at South-View, these temporary funeral home markers are the only markers identifying the gravesites. To lose these markers would be a great historic loss, yet the high estimated cost to repair the fragile markers defied a quick resolution to the issue.

Founded in 2004, the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, endeavors to increase community awareness and support for the preservation and restoration of Historic South-View. This case study follows the analysis and decision making process of the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation —with illustrations of markers and treatment alternatives—as it formulated the plan to address the preservation of these historic markers in a cost effective manner, while maintaining the culturally unique character of this African American cemetery landscape.

References

Books

Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Your Guide to Cemetery Research. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Passed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial Collection. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002.

Hughes Wright, Roberta, Wilbur B. Hughes, and Barbara K. Hughes Smith. The Death Care Industry: African American Cemeteries and Funeral Homes. Hughes Wright Enterprises, 2007.

Hughes Wright, Roberta and Wilbur B. Hughes III. Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1996.

Nichols, Elaine, ed. The Last Miles of the Way: African American Homegoing Traditions 1890 to Present. Columbia, South Carolina: South Carolina State Museum, 1989.

Strangstad, Lynette. A Graveyard Preservation Primer. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1988.

Online Resources

African American Cemeteries: Philosophy of African American Death and Burial. http://www.mtsu.edu/~then/Cemetery/page7.html

African American Cemeteries Online

http://www.prairiebluff.com/aacemetery/

Association for Gravestone Studies, 278 Main St., Suite 207, Greenfield, MA, 01301. http://www.gravestonestudies.org/

Grave Matters: The Preservation of African American Cemeteries, Chicora Foundation, Inc., Box 8664, Columbia, SC 292028664.
http://www.sciway.net/hist/chicora/gravematters.html

Speaker’s Bio

Dr. D L Henderson is the executive director of the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation. A preservationist, genealogist, and educator, she conducts a popular series of cemetery and genealogy workshops and is a frequent speaker at local and national conferences. For many years, she has researched and written heritage tours on cemetery history and the art and architecture of Atlanta’s Oakland and South-View cemeteries. She also serves as a member of the advisory board of the Historic Oakland Foundation. At present, she is working on a book-length project documenting the cultural history of African American cemetery landscapes.

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4 Responses to Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit Abstracts and Video

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  2. Robert Wrigley says:

    My wife’s gr-gr-grandfather is a Union soldier buried there. When we visited this grave site last October we were quite dismayed at the condition and damage done to the stones by lawn mowers running over and chipping it. At the time we did not know the full history of the markers being altered in the 1930s. We would fully support the efforts to restore them.
    Would it be possible for a private citizen to be able to contribute to the restoration of their family’s marker or replacement? Perhaps a volunteer effort of those with relatives there could help accomplish some of this initiative to restore to their original condition.

    • Jason Church says:

      Dear Robert,
      The best person to talk with will be Betsy Dinger Elizabeth_Dinger@nps.gov who is a historian for Petersburg National Battlefield and Cemetery.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro says:

      Mr. Wrigley,
      I don’t know if you’ll get this message but I would be very interested to know which of the men buried at Battleground Cemetery is your wife’s gr-gr-grandfather. I am a historian and I have spent the last several years researcing the battle of Fort Stevens and Battleground National Cemetery. Does your wife have a photograph of her ancestor? That would be a goldmine. I have never seen any picture of any of the men killed at the battle.

      If you can be of help to me, my e-mail address is bryanac625@yahoo.com. Thank you.

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