By Dennis J. Taylor
Writing a history of Historic Sylvester Cemetery has proven to be quite a difficult task because of a lack of written records and an overabundance of faded memories. Some information we were given conflicted with other information we had been told. Despite that, there are a number of facts about the cemetery, which cannot be disputed.
Land Once Owned by Creek Indians
One fact is that this cemetery land once belonged to the Creek Indian Nation. We begin our story by consulting The History of DeKalb County, Georgia, 1822-1900, written and published by Vivian Price in 1997. Mrs. Price states that on January 8, 1821 at Indian Springs in Butts County, just east of Griffin, the Creek Indians were forced to the bargaining table and ceded a huge tract of their land to the State of Georgia. Five huge counties including Henry County were carved out of this concession. Each of these new counties was divided into land districts nine miles square. In turn, these land districts were subdivided into land lots of 202 ½ acres each. Mrs. Price points out in her book that despite having ceded a huge part of their territory, the Creek Indians did not completely vacate the area until 1838.
Decatur Becomes the County Seat
Mrs. Price wrote that so many new settlers had streamed into Henry County, that by 1822, the Georgia General Assembly decided to create an additional ten counties from the original five. DeKalb County was one of these ten and was carved out of a piece of Henry County. Georgia Governor John Clarke signed the act on December 9, which was then passed on December 29, 1822. County commissioners in July 1823 selected Land Lot 246 in the 15th district as the site for the county seat, to be named Decatur, after Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of the War of 1812.
The History goes on to say that the early settlers of DeKalb were “plain people of English, Scotch and Irish descent, who had come directly or indirectly from Virginia and the Carolinas…They were poor, not highly educated, generally industrious and temperate…They were small farmers, owning their own homes, which were generally log cabins, and owning few if any slaves.” Estimates were that there were in all of DeKalb County about 2,500 persons in 1822.
Thomas Simmons Migrates to Georgia
This brings us to the next key figure in our story, Thomas Simmons. According to the Federal census of 1810, there were two Thomas Simmons in South Carolina and five in North Carolina. Georgia was not enumerated that year. Was our subject one of these? Possibly he was, but we are unable to conclusively prove it. However, many families from the Carolinas were migrating into the area at that time. At the federal census of 1820 in Georgia, three Thomas Simmons were counted, including one in Madison County, which is not too far from DeKalb County. Mr. Simmons was probably married here in Georgia but no marriage record has survived. No one knows the name of his wife. Based on research done by the noted Atlanta historian, Wilbur G. Kurtz, we are told that one Thomas Simmons received from the Georgia State Assembly, Land Lot 174 in the 15th District of DeKalb County, formerly Henry County, about the year 1834-1835. Mr. Simmons’ land comprised 202.5 acres. At the time Mr. Kurtz was writing in 1936, he did not have access to census records and other records, which we can access today. He had spoken to Mr. John W. McWilliams, who owned some of the cemetery land and who died in 1934 at the age of ninety. His wife was Josephine Brown McWilliams, whose parents are considered to be the first settlers and founders of East Atlanta. These events were passed along as oral history to Mr. McWilliams. Therefore, some of the dates used by Mr. Kurtz were best guess estimates since written records were lacking.
Mr. Simmons Erects a Saw Mill
In any event, our Thomas Simmons had a wife, name unknown and one son, Stephen. According to New York researcher Mary Ellen Fealko, his son Stephen, was born February 19, 1834 in Georgia, probably in the Lawrenceville area. Mrs. Fealko, now living in New York State, is an avid historian who has uncovered extensive amounts of information on the Terry and Mathews families. She has graciously provided us with many previously unknown facts about them, which we have woven into our story. Thomas Simmons erected a gristmill and a sawmill on Sugar Creek, which flows into the South River. The History of DeKalb County lists the two mills as among the oldest industries in the county. The mills were south of what is today Glenwood Avenue roughly in the vicinity of Terry Mill Road. Interstate 20, between Exit 61B and Exit 62, in East Atlanta, now runs through the area where the Simmons’ farm and two mills used to be. A stretch of Sugar Creek flows about parallel to the Interstate here, and at one point flows through a culvert beneath the highway.
Lumber Cut for Village of Atlanta
To power the mills Mr. Simmons constructed a dam across the creek and created a pond that was said to be about 60 acres in size and half a mile wide at its widest. It was later known as Terry Mill Pond. As we shall see, later in our story, this pond figured in a significant way during the Battle of Atlanta. According to Mr. Kurtz, the mills are believed to have been fully operational as early as 1837. In those days, mills such as these were two story affairs raised above streambeds, constructed of timber and never painted. Farmers from many miles around brought their grain to the mill for grinding, and gave the owner a portion, called a “toll” (usually 1/8), in payment. Mr. Simmons’ saw mill is said to have been the first in this area and from its earliest days, cut much of the lumber used in construction of the village of Atlanta, then known as Marthasville. The lumber was loaded onto wagons and drawn by mules about three miles into town.
Eleanor Mathews Terry
According to Mr. Kurtz’ research, Thomas Simmons’ wife fell seriously ill about 1836-1837. He knew of a widow in the Lawrenceville area, one Elenor Mathews Terry. Eleanor was the daughter of Thomas Mathews III (1773-1836) and his wife Nancy Terry (1777-1866). According to Sue Ellen Fealko, Nancy was born in England and was the daughter of Thomas Terry and his first wife Elizabeth Harrison. This Thomas Terry established Terry’s Chapel, later known as Pisgah Methodist Church in Flat Shoals, Laurens County, South Carolina.
Mrs. Fealko documented the Mathews family as far back as the census of 1800 residing in Laurens County. The same family is again found in Laurens County in the Federal census of 1810, listing Eleanor as five years of age. She may well have been closer to age six with a birth year of 1804. She must have married about 1819 and then moved with her husband Thomas Terry to Gwinnett County, Georgia. Very likely her husband was related to her mother, Nancy Terry Mathews, possibly her nephew or grandnephew, and thus Eleanor Mathews’ first or second cousin. She and Thomas Terry are found in the Gwinnett County, Georgia census of 1820. Her age is given as 16, and Thomas’ as 26. At the time, they were living next door to her father. They had no children listed at the time. However, their daughter Nancy was born later that year. Their son Thomas was born in 1823, and daughter Elizabeth was born about 1825.As you will see, the same family names were handed down from generation to generation, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish one person from another.
Thomas Terry Dies; Eleanor Remarries
Their happiness was not to last since Thomas died prior to 1830 and could not have been any older than thirty five. According to the family bible belonging to Thomas Mathews IV, brother of Eleanor Mathews Terry, Thomas Terry died on May 20, 1826. According to Wilbur Kurtz, Thomas is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave at Liberty Church near Lawrenceville. In the Federal census of 1830, Eleanor is listed as a widow along with her three children. Their names are given but their exact ages are not. The widow Terry was skilled in practical nursing and needing money to support her children; she accepted Thomas Simmons’ request to look after his wife and son while he ran his mill operations. At that point her daughter Nancy was very probably married. Eleanor left her two younger children in the care of relatives and came to the Simmons farm. Mrs. Simmons is believed to have died in that same year or in early 1838. Over time, Thomas and Eleanor developed a respect and fondness for each other and are believed to have married by 1839. No record of their marriage has been located. Elenor then brought her two younger children Thomas and Elizabeth, to live on the Simmons farm.
Nancy Terry Marries James “Spanish Jim” Brown
About the year 1836 when she was just sixteen, Eleanor’s oldest child Nancy, had become the wife of James “Spanish Jim” Brown. The possibility is that Nancy and James Brown met and married during the time the Terrys were living in Lawrenceville. Later the couple moved in order to be near her mother. In any event, the Browns settled near the Simmons farm and are considered to be the founding settlers of what was to become East Atlanta. They had their first child, Eleanor R. M. Brown on July 18, 1837. The baby was no doubt named after her maternal grandmother Eleanor Terry Simmons. Sadly, the child died only a year later in October 1838. The burial took place on the Simmons farm, on a hill overlooking Sugar Creek. A gravestone was placed over her grave and can still be clearly read today. This burial was the first documented in what was referred to in the community as the Terry Family Cemetery and the stone is the oldest in the cemetery. It is believed to be at the core of what has become our present day cemetery now 13.5 acres in size. Where was the first Mrs. Simmons interred? It could have been near to where the Brown child was laid to rest, but no one knows.
Thomas Simmons Dies Young
Getting back to the Simmons couple, their life of happiness and contentment lasted only a year or two until Mr. Simmons died a premature death. He was very likely laid to rest near to where his step-granddaughter and possibly his first wife were interred several years earlier. No marked gravestone was erected for Thomas Simmons and the exact location of his burial is unknown. However, there are several granite stones in the vicinity of the Terry family gravestones, and these markers could well be the burial sites of Mr. Simmons and his two wives. According to Mr. Kurtz, the historian, the burial took place around the year 1842, since it was said to have occurred shortly before the DeKalb County courthouse burned in 1842. However, the death had to have been earlier since the Federal census of 1840 finds Eleanor, a widow residing with her two children, Thomas and Elizabeth and her stepson Stephen.
Upon the death of Mr. Simmons before 1840, the ownership of the Thomas Simmons property passed to his second wife since his son Stephen was only about six years old. Eleanor Terry Simmons’ eldest son from her first marriage, Thomas Terry, took over the running of the farm and mill for his mother. Thomas had been born in Lawrenceville, Georgia on August 28, 1823, and was about 16-17 years of age when his stepfather died.
Thomas Terry, the Son Marries
According to Georgia marriage records, Thomas married when he was 26 years of age. His wife was Mary Jane Thurman, age seventeen, born November 28, 1832 and daughter of one James C. Thurman and Anna Adair Thurman. James C. Thurman was born in South Carolina in 1810. He and his wife Anna had thirteen children, of whom Mary Jane was the eldest. Though she was only seventeen, being the eldest of a large family, most likely Mary Jane was very mature and responsible for her age. Their marriage was celebrated on November 27, 1849 and was recorded at the DeKalb County Court House. On September 6, 1850, the Terrys were enumerated by the census taker as residing in the Town District of Decatur as follows: Thomas, age twenty seven, farmer, wife Mary J., age seventeen, mother, Eleanor Simmons, age forty five and Stephen Simmons, age sixteen.
Thomas and Mary Jane had five children between the census of 1850 and 1860. They were Ellen M. (Mrs. Frank L. Guess), born on March 3, 1851; Thomas J., aka James Thomas, born about 1852-1853, William M., born September 22, 1854; Sylvester J., the subject of this story, born September 23, 1856; and Newton Harrison, born December 25, 1858.
Eleanor Mathews Terry Simmons Dies
At the next census of July 10, 1860, the Terry family was recorded as Free Inhabitants of the Decatur District of Georgia. The farm was said to be worth $4,000, with personal property worth $1,500. Thomas is recorded as 35 years of age, and a farmer. Mary Jane, domestic, was twenty seven, daughter Ellen was ten, son James Thomas was eight, William was six, Sylvester, spelled Silvester, was age four and Newton was two. Their brother Jasper, was born on June 17, 1861 after the census was taken. Missing was Eleanor Terry Simmons, who for some reason was not counted. Going back to the bible of Thomas Mathews IV, Eleanor is recorded as deceased on November 23, 1865. Where was Eleanor laid to rest? Without a marked gravestone, it is impossible to know, but it is extremely likely that she took her place in the Terry family graveyard, near to her second husband, and granddaughter.
The Murder of Thomas Terry
In 1861, Thomas Terry was involved in a feud with some relatives of a child being tutored by his sister Nancy. The dispute concerned the tuition that the relatives had not paid. Thomas was attacked on a street in downtown Atlanta. He was struck from behind with a liquor bottle, resulting in a massive brain injury, and he died the next day, August 4, 1861. He was thirty-eight years of age. Thomas Terry was laid to rest in the family cemetery and his grave is still visible today. The story of his murder in downtown Atlanta makes quite a story in itself. Wilbur G. Kurtz for the Atlanta Historical Bulletin wrote the best rendition of this tragedy in November 1936. For more details about the Simmons-Terry family, their farm, and its sawmill and mill pond, please see the story The Murder of Thomas Terry available on the Sylvester Cemetery website at www.sylvestercemetery.org. After the murder, his young wife was left with a large farm, a 2-month-old baby, and five other young children to care for. The baby Jasper died two years later on June 27, 1863.
The Civil War Comes to Terry Mill
It was during the Civil War at the Battle of Atlanta, fought July 23, 1864 that the 60-acre pond, by then known as Terry Mill Pond, became a factor in the battle. Confederate General W.H.T. Walker was leading a battalion of men up Fayetteville Road, in the vicinity of Flat Shoals Road, when hearing cannon fire, he decided to cut through the wilderness to advance westward on Atlanta. He was initially unaware that the large pond lay in his path. It was not on any of the maps then in use. Despite being advised against it by locals, he decided to forge ahead by that route anyway and was forced to make a wide detour around the pond, which was quite deep in places and a half mile long.
Riding ahead towards the sound of gunfire, he rode directly into a platoon of Union soldiers who were encamped in the immediate vicinity of what is today Crim High School at Memorial Drive and Clifton Road. He was ordered to halt, but instead whipped his horse around and tried to flee back to the safety of his line. General Walker was shot dead in the saddle, his officers and men left badly demoralized.
After the war in the 1870 census, the Terrys are recorded on July 11 as residing in what had been renamed the Panthersville District of DeKalb County. Mary Jane was listed as a widow, keeping house and age thirty-six. After the murder, Mrs. Terry had to manage the farm with the help of her oldest daughter and her brother, who ran the saw mill.Int the census of 1870, her daughter Ellen was nineteen and at home, James T. was seventeen and listed as “at school,” William M,. age sixteen, was also “at school,” and Sylvester J., age fourteen, and Newton H., age eleven, were farm laborers. Also living with them was Mary Jane’s younger brother James T. Thurman, age twenty-two, working as a wagon master. No doubt, lumber cut at the mill supplied James with all the timber he needed for his trade.
Sylvester Terry Dies Suddenly
Tragedy struck again when young Sylvester took ill one day in March 1872. It is said that he was working in the fields when he felt extremely ill. He managed to drag himself to the house where his distraught mother put him to bed. As the day progressed, he got worse and the country doctor was sent for. However, the doctor arrived too late and the teenage boy died during the night of March 27 of unknown causes. His mother was so grief-stricken that she had her son buried near the farmhouse so she could look out her bedroom window and gaze upon his gravesite. A year or so later, she was persuaded to have Sylvester’s casket dug up and moved to the hill site where over the years other family members had been laid to rest. Sylvester’s body was laid to rest near his father and his headstone is the focal point of the cemetery.
Methodists Build a Church
It was about this time in 1873, when a group calling itself the Methodist Episcopal Church South approached Mary Jane Terry and inquired about purchasing a parcel of land from her for the erection of a place of worship. The deed, recorded at the DeKalb County Courthouse, was written on February 3, 1874. Mrs. Terry had been persuaded to sell the land, about an acre in size, for a small amount with the stipulation that the meeting house be named after her young son Sylvester, whose death was still a painful memory.
The Methodists built a simple one-story place of worship and called it the Sylvester Meeting House. As far as we know no photo of it exists. Our understanding is that it was used as a schoolhouse, a place of worship and a meeting place for important occasions. It was often referred to as the Sylvester Church property. This parcel of land was immediately adjacent to and south of the parcel, by then known as the Terry Cemetery, where members of the extended Terry family and other early settlers had laid their dead to rest for some thirty years.
John W. McWilliams Buys Cemetery Land
Court records show that over the years, Mrs. Terry was forced to lease or sell numerous parcels of land in order to support herself and her family. As time went along in the 1870s, the population of the area grew. During this time, the need for a community cemetery became evident. There was in East Atlanta at this time a prominent businessman and resident, one John William McWilliams. He stepped forth and Mrs. Terry agreed to sell him some land for this purpose. The two were related by marriage since Mr. McWilliams had married Josephine Brown, the daughter of “Spanish Jim” and Nancy Terry Brown. Nancy was the sister of Mary Jane’s late husband Thomas. Thus Mr. McWilliams was the husband of Mary Jane Thurman’s niece. Mr. McWilliams purchased from Mrs. Terry a parcel of land described in court documents as seven acres, three rods and two perches in size. The survey, conducted by Franklin L. Guess, DeKalb County Surveyor, on January 26, 1876, illustrates that the McWilliams parcel abutted the original Terry graveyard and the one-acre parcel previously deeded to the Methodists.
According to Historian Vivian Price, Mr. Guess was married to Mary Jane Terry’s daughter Ellen. The deed was conveyed on January 27, 1876, for the grand sum of $118.00. This property naturally became known as the McWilliams Cemetery on tax maps, surveys, and other charts made during this time. However, of the hundreds of obituaries and death notices going back as far as the 1870s, all refer to the Terry section and the McWilliams section as Sylvester Cemetery. The total area of all three parcels tallied to nine acres, two rods, and twenty perches. The deed also shows that Mr. and Mrs. McWilliams owned other land adjacent and to the north of this parcel, while Mary Jane Terry’s son James Thomas owned land adjacent and to the southeast.
Methodists Leave, Baptists Arrive
The Methodist congregation, however, lasted only 10 years and then for some unknown reasons it disbanded. By order of the Methodist Conference held at Oakland on March 17, 1883, the parcel evidently was re-conveyed to Mrs. Terry. A new deed was drawn up on September 18, 1883, when for the sum of $55.00, she deeded the parcel to six trustees who were acting in the name of a new group known as the Missionary Baptist Church.
They were to hold the property in trust for “schools and a religious place of worship and their successors, and in trust for educational, religious denominations to have the right of worshiping at the place.” The deed also ensured “the Missionary Baptists the right to organize and keep their organization at that place until they deem it best to move, and when all orthodox churches (white) have abandoned it as a place of worship, then the entire tract of one acre is to be made into a cemetery for white people if not needed for school purposes.”
A small group of people, including Mary Jane Thurman Terry, met on October 14, 1883 at the Sylvester Meeting House to organize into a Baptist congregation. Since the previous church bore the name Sylvester and the church abutted the Terry family cemetery where its namesake Sylvester Terry was buried, it was agreed by all present that taking the name Sylvester Baptist Church was fitting and proper. For the only detailed history of this church, see that written in 1967, by the then pastor Rev. Leonard Quick. The congregation soon outgrew the meetinghouse and plans were set in motion to build a new edifice across the street to the south. It would not surprise you to know that the land for the new church had once been owned by Mrs. Mary J. Terry.
New Church Erected in 1887
A story in the Atlanta Constitution dated March 15, 1887 stated that the congregation had erected a “large and elegant church edifice, which is an ornament and a credit to the community”. “Some inside work yet remains to be done and the Ladies’ Aid Society is making strenuous efforts to raise funds to complete the work.” The new wooden two-story building was dedicated at 3:00pm on July 17, 1887. A large crowd was in attendance. In a newspaper article in the Atlanta Constitution dated that day, the church was described as a handsome and elegant wooden building, comfortably seating 300. One fact not commonly known is that the church was not fitted out with customary benches, but with elegant individual chairs and that the ceiling was painted pale blue. There was a large and handsome belfry, within which a bell called all those about the countryside to worship. The cost for the church was $1,000, much of the labor having been donated. The old meetinghouse was left standing and was used for a number of different purposes until possibly the 1950s when it was torn down. The land was then joined to the other cemetery property as had been prescribed in the deed.
Cemetery Enlarged and Surveyed
This explains why today, the large meadow in Historic Sylvester Cemetery where the original meetinghouse once sat has no gravesites. At some point, possibly in the 1920s or 1930s when Clifton Road was surveyed and laid out, an additional three acres of land were added to the original Terry and McWilliams parcels and the entire 12 acres continued to be known as Sylvester Cemetery. This acreage was located on the north side of Braeburn Circle, formerly known as Terry Mill Road. It was possibly in the 1930s that the Warren family purchased about 1.5 acres on the south side of Terry Mill Road from Mrs. Terry’s heirs and that too was considered part of Sylvester Cemetery. This land was surveyed and laid out into plots in 1936 by M.F. Mable. This land abutted to the east the church building constructed in 1887. A dirt road running north-south beside the church connected it to Flat Shoals Road. An aerial map done in 1949 shows some portions of this road visible through the trees. When the Settle Circle neighborhood was laid out in the 1950s, the dirt road was removed, except for one short stretch beside the church. This section was paved over in the 1960s and served as a parking lot for the church and the south side cemetery and can still be seen today.
No Cemetery Records Kept
Because many of the church’s congregants were interred in Historic Sylvester Cemetery and because the two were across the street from each other, Sylvester Cemetery was often referred to as the Sylvester Church Cemetery or the Sylvester churchyard. However, as far as we have been able to determine, Sylvester Baptist Church did not actually own any of it. Unfortunately the church records that we have been able to study contain no information as to which members were interred in the cemetery, or when, or in which particular plots.
Neither the Terry family nor the McWilliams family kept detailed records as to who bought which plots and when. Supposedly some of these deeds were recorded with the county but are in fact difficult to find. We have had to piece together most of our information from talking to descendants, members of the family, and members of the community to learn what has transpired in the cemetery. Many times given information was vague or in conflict with other information we had been told or researched.
John W. McWilliams, First Postmaster
Several surveys were done at the cemetery property over the years, including one in January 1911 by T. C. Jackson. It clearly showed the cemetery divided into 8 sections or blocks, each section having numerous plots. We do know that John McWilliams subdivided his land into 20×30-foot parcels and deeded them to members of his immediate family. He also sold numerous parcels to members of the church and residents of East Atlanta and surrounding areas. He himself is interred in a handsome plot at the cemetery, having died at the age of ninety in 1934. John W.McWilliams, who was a Civil War Veteran, had opened the first general store in East Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day, in 1889. He later became the first village postmaster, and was succeeded by his son Sam when he retired. The post office was located in a corner of the general store. A photo of this store still exists and can be seen on the cemetery’s website at www.sylvestercemetery.org. His great granddaughter, Mary Frances Banks, tells us that J. W. was the person who laid out the three roads that we see in the cemetery today.
Back in the 1870-1890s, there were very few cemeteries within 10 miles of East Atlanta. Numerous families chose Sylvester because of its proximity, because it was family owned and operated, and because it was inexpensive. Families who had some extra money erected either a brick or stone wall around their family’s plot. Others used cinder blocks. Some placed large handsome gravestones on these plots, others used simple granite markers; and many have nothing but a simple footstone. A number of families of limited means buried their dead in open areas, where a gravestone or a granite marker was sometimes placed, but more often nothing of any kind. Because of obituaries and death notices obtained from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, we are aware of at least 250 individuals who were interred here but have no markers of any kind.
No Perpetual Care Provided
Families paid very little for these plots, and perpetual care was not provided. It was considered the duty of each family to maintain their own plot. Though they were given a deed by Mr. McWilliams, or by Mrs. Terry and her heirs, many did not bother to record these deeds at the county courthouse, making the subject of ownership very clouded indeed. Some plots were sold and resold and many were divided into two 20×15-foot plots. Over the years, most families misplaced the deeds, making it difficult to prove ownership and to locate exactly where these plots were located. If no gravestone had been erected, then locating one’s family gravesite was no longer possible.
The story of our cemetery would not be complete if we did not discuss some of the people who are interred here at Historic Sylvester. We should first mention our veterans, of whom there are more than 60: at least 14 from the Civil War, two from the Spanish American War, several from WWI, one or two from the Korean War, dozens from WWII and at least one from the Vietnam War. There are three DeKalb County policemen killed in the line of duty, a sheriff, a firefighter, three country doctors, a veterinarian, three ministers, and a number of store owners. A good many were farmers, including William M. Terry who was prominent in Atlanta government and politics around the turn of the century. The wives of those mentioned above were often buried with their husbands, but in a number of cases where they remarried, they are interred in another cemetery with the second spouse.
Fiddlin’ John Carson
Perhaps the most well known individual laid to rest at Historic Sylvester is Fiddlin’ John Carson. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, he is widely considered the father of Country and Western Music, by virtue of the fact that in the spring of 1922, he had the first radio program featuring old time genuine country music, sometimes termed hillbilly music. He won the Georgia Old Time Fiddlers Convention Championship eight times between 1913 and 1922. He was the first country musician to have his own radio show in the spring of 1923, right here in Atlanta. On June 14, 1923, he released the first country music record, which became immensely successful and sold over a half million copies. He then traveled to New York and made a country music album, which also went platinum. This was considered to be the launching of the country music recording industry. Over his career lasting until about 1935, he recorded 175 songs, first on the Okeh label and then on RCA. Fiddlin’ John was also the first country artist to tour great distances to perform, traveling to Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and California. During his career, he became a favorite of Governor Eugene Talmadge and often accompanied him about the state when he campaigned. Fiddlin’ John Carson was admitted to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, at Macon, Georgia in 1984. His grave, holding a tall white obelisk and surrounded by a white retaining wall, is located on the cemetery’s west side and can be seen from Clifton Road.
John W. McWilliams Dies in 1934
Returning to our story, as we said, when individuals purchased their lots they were not assured of perpetual care. It was the duty and responsibility and custom for each family to maintain and care for their own family’s gravesite. We have been told that for several generations, many families made a day of it and considered it a tradition to visit the cemetery at least once a year to make sure the family plot was kept up. Adults and children took pride in this yearly ritual. I assume that a caretaker, who may have been paid by John McWilliams and members of the Terry family, maintained the common areas. We have a photo of a caretaker and his wife dated about 1910. Their names were Omie and Marcus Hasty. Mr. Hasty died in 1920 and his wife passed away in 1937; both were interred in Historic Sylvester Cemetery and have a handsome stone over their graves. As we indicated, Mr. McWilliams himself passed away in 1934 and after that there was apparently no overall administrator of Historic Sylvester Cemetery.
Caretakers and Neglect
When a caretaker died or retired, another likely replaced him. However, as time went on, there is no doubt that it became more difficult to find someone willing to do the work for very little pay. We have learned from family members that one Mr. Stallings was the caretaker for many years up until the 1970s. They said he was paid by each family to dig the grave by hand and to provide any needed maintenance. Being a gravedigger or cemetery caretaker was not then nor is now a desirable, well-paid occupation. As time marched on, various sections of the cemetery began to look overgrown and neglected. One person alone could not maintain 13 acres. Not every family was diligent about keeping up their plot. It is also true that in some cases, the deceased individual had no family or the family had died out. Deeds that we have seen stipulated that the lanes between family plots were to be kept clear of debris. However, over time these lanes became choked with dead tree limbs, thick piles of leaves, wild bushes, vines, poison ivy, discarded flower pots, trash, etc. For many, many years it was customary for most families to dump any unwanted debris wherever a vacant spot could be found. This only added to the wild, neglected look of the place. It was no doubt discouraging for those who wanted to continue to visit and care for the gravesites of their loved ones.
The more neglected it became the more people became upset with the conditions and ceased to visit. Some families resolved not to bury any more family members there. We believe there were possibly as many as a dozen cases where caskets were exhumed and transferred to other cemeteries in the area. Sometimes the gravestone was left behind; sometimes the family removed the stone as well.
Never Well Maintained
How does a family cemetery located across the street from a church that once had a membership of 2,000 become so neglected? In some cases, the families had died out; in other cases, the family had moved away; in still other cases, the relatives were elderly and unable to maintain their plots. Younger members were unwilling or unable to take up the responsibility. We have been told by many people who once lived in the area that Sylvester had been overgrown and wild looking since at least the 1940s. Of the dozens of people we spoke to, no one we met could remember a time when the cemetery was well maintained; the common areas having been neglected and many plots virtually abandoned.
What brought on the near total abandonment of the cemetery was white flight which began in the early 1960s and the closing of Sylvester Baptist Church in June 1972. According to historian Anne Taylor Boutwell, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan lived in a neighborhood adjacent to East Atlanta. Civil rights groups wishing to integrate housing targeted East Atlanta. Citing the Fair Housing Act, middle class African-American families were assisted in moving into the community. Unscrupulous real estate agents took advantage of the situation to stoke people’s fear and racial prejudice. Fear about the changing neighborhood and panic about the declining value of their homes led many otherwise sober people to quickly sell their houses and move to the suburbs. White flight set in with a vengeance and with the construction of Interstate 20, the commute to and from the city was a lot faster and easier. People became desperate to sell out and whole neighborhoods flipped within a year or two. Stories are told that some three-bedroom houses sold for as little as $1,500 and the only people willing to purchase these houses were slum landlords who rented them out but refused to keep them up. Those few owners who stayed had steel bars installed over their windows along with burglarproof doors.
Crime Greatly Increases
As property values became severely depressed, crime increased and drugs became a big problem. Historic Sylvester Cemetery became the victim of all this social upheaval to the point that most people were afraid to visit. Word went out from family to family that the cemetery was scary and dangerous and that kept away many previously dedicated people as well. Those who did visit carried a gun for protection. A study by the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2004 showed that there were over 800 inmates in state prison facilities who were from the 30316 ZIP Code where Sylvester Cemetery is located.
Cemetery Becomes Dumping Ground
As the cemetery appeared more and more wild and overgrown, those living around the neighborhood used it as a dumping ground, a convenient place to get rid of trash and all kinds of junk and unwanted debris. Volunteers uncovered numerous tires, car parts, a huge patio awning, and large piles of cans and bottles. We removed at least 400 large bags of trash. Prostitution reared its ugly head in the cemetery, leading us to find evidence of sexual activity and discarded clothing in many different spots. Drug dealing took hold and evidence of drug use was obvious, with the cemetery a favorite place to do drug deals. Drug houses popped up in the neighborhood as they usually do in rundown areas. As late as 2005, there was a drug house directly across the street from our cemetery. The police conducted a raid there and all were dragged off to jail. Drinking, much of it underage, was also a persistent problem, with the result that we have had to remove more than 1,000 beer cans and liquor bottles from all areas of the cemetery, where they had been discarded for 30-40 years.
Years ago, before steel bollards were installed, stolen cars were driven into the cemetery, stripped, and sometimes set on fire. Men with truckloads of construction debris drove into the cemetery and dumped their refuse. We found large piles of broken windows, roofing shingles, Sheetrock, carpeting, broken furniture, etc. In the past three years, at least four stolen cars were abandoned in front of the cemetery, two of which were set on fire. We were told that back in the 1970s, a house burned down on nearby Cecile Avenue. A front-end loader was brought in and the entire house was scooped up and dumped into an open area of the cemetery! This individual, a member of the Tolar family, used his own money to pay to have the huge mound of debris removed.
Cemetery Becomes No Man’s Land
The final insult was the fact that neighborhood children used the place as a playground. The cemetery was considered a “no man’s land” and adults, teens, and children felt free to do whatever they wanted. Everything that could be broken was smashed: jars, bottles, vases, clay pots, and masonry pots. About a dozen gravestones were broken and another dozen or so were pushed over. There was a lot of illegal drinking as we said. After more than six years of restoration, we are still finding and picking up broken glass from liquor bottles.
So how did the cemetery come to be restored? In the summer of 2002, a local community activist, Nancy Gates Moulton, began discussing the possibility of “doing something” about the cemetery. Her husband, Larry Felton Johnson, started a blog about the cemetery and many people in the community logged on. Others who had moved away logged on and reminisced about the good old days and lamented what had happened to the church and the cemetery. This led to a community meeting in November 2002 at Joe’s East Atlanta Coffee Shop on Flat Shoals Avenue. A crowd of about twenty-five concerned family, friends, and community residents gathered one evening to discuss what could be done about the awful conditions there.
First Cleanup December 7, 2002
It was resolved that the first cemetery cleanup would be held on Saturday, December 7, and that there would be one held on a monthly basis thereafter. A group of about twenty enthusiastic people showed up that Saturday in work clothes and began the enormous task of taking back the cemetery from what had the appearance of a scary South American jungle. One truly needed a machete to hack one’s way through the tangle of enormous vines, downed tree limbs, fallen dead trees, poison ivy, wild bushes, and piles of leaves, brush, and trash. Much was accomplished that day, but it was a very small dent in what was obviously a huge undertaking.
Sylvester Cemetery Foundation Established
It was some time in early 2003, that interested family and community members began meeting quarterly to discuss progress and issues regarding the cemetery. The meetings were held at Martha Brown United Methodist Church located at Moreland and Metropolitan Avenues in East Atlanta. A Board of Directors was chosen and minutes were kept. The first officers were: Al Oakes, President, Winn Floyd, Vice President, Chad Carlson, Treasurer and Larry Johnson, Secretary. Later that year, then-Treasurer Chad Carlson completed paperwork to have the Sylvester Cemetery Foundation incorporated as a state nonprofit organization and also secured from the IRS the necessary designation as a nonprofit 501(c)13 corporation. This permitted donors to make tax-deductible contributions to the foundation. A cemetery logo was chosen, and business cards and stationery were later printed up.
Cemetery Website Begun
What advanced the cause and visibility of the cemetery more than anything was the creation of a website in early 2005. Jerry Semprevio was the creator and still works as the webmaster. The website allowed us to communicate with many families who in the past had no one to turn to for information or assistance.
Previously, we had taken a census of the cemetery and counted over 1,400 individuals. Then we were able to place that census online for viewers to access. We were later to find dozens more gravestones that had not even been visible because of the overgrowth. We were also able to place photos on line and link our website to many other cemeteries and non profit organizations. In early 2005, we also began acquiring obituaries, death notices, death certificates, deeds, photos, etc. for those interred in the cemetery. The decision was made to begin an archive to preserve all this information for the families of today and for future generations. This project proved successful and is ongoing.
Thousands of Hours Volunteered
Getting back to the monthly cleanups, the work of restoration proved extremely arduous and the enthusiasm for sweat labor diminished quickly. The number of volunteers dropped off in a very short time to just a handful. After about six months, it also became obvious that a cleanup once a month would never accomplish our mission since the jungle grew back faster than we could keep up with it. At that point, one volunteer, Dennis Taylor, who was retired, began going to the cemetery once a week to cut away at the jungle. He became the “de facto Cemetery Manager.” After a while, he started going two and three times a week. Some small progress was then apparent, but there were times when it seemed overwhelming and that the project would never be accomplished. A second volunteer, Jerry Semprevio, began working at the cemetery nearly every weekend and together they resolutely made progress by clearing one section of the cemetery at a time. Extremely arduous work followed day by day, week by week, and month by month.
After about a year, real improvement could be seen. Mr. Taylor, encouraged by the advances being made, began working at the cemetery every day. Beginning in September of 2004, these two volunteers also worked at the cemetery almost every single weekend up until March 2007. About the only time they skipped was when it rained or it was too cold and raw to work outdoors. Larry Johnson, whose ancestors are interred in the cemetery, often joined them.
Day Laborers Hired
Because of the enormous volume of work, much of which was extremely heavy and strenuous, and the pronounced lack of volunteers, day laborers often had to be employed to assist with the work. They were most effective in getting huge projects done, but at a cost the cemetery could ill afford. The cemetery treasury went into the red for most of 2005 and all of 2006. Over the past four years, we have fortunately been able to work in partnership with Hands On Atlanta several times a year to bring large numbers of volunteers into the cemetery to help. This has accomplished a lot. We used the Tool Bank to provide the large number of tools needed for these cleanups. An Adopt-A-Plot program similar to the one in place at Historic Oakland was established here. The cemetery manager continued in his exhausting daily mission until December 2006 when he returned to the work force and thereafter was able to work in the cemetery only on weekends.
Thirteen Acres of Green Space
As of April 2007, the cemetery had been completely cleared of fallen dead trees, huge mounds of tree limbs, trash, vines, English Ivy, enormous Ilex, privet bushes, and other wild growth. Today we concentrate on mowing the grass along the three perimeters of the cemetery, weed whacking, and cutting away privet in all the common areas. Much still needs to be done to restore the cemetery to a place truly worthy of its historical significance, but with a small and dedicated group we continue to make slow progress. Restoration of the roadways, resetting of fallen and sunken gravestones, repair and replacement of badly damaged retaining walls, and creation of a master landscaping plan are some of the important work which remains to be done. It is also our intention to have all gravesites and all common areas surveyed so that a proper master survey map of the cemetery can be created.
Historic Sylvester Cemetery is the oldest and one of the most historic spots in East Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County. It is well worth preserving not only because it is the resting spot for more than 1,500 of East Atlanta’s earliest settlers, but also because it is a valuable piece of park land and a sanctuary of green space that is a great asset to our community and the metro area. Come visit Historic Sylvester Cemetery for a unique cemetery experience!
History of Historic Sylvester Cemetery
By Dennis J. Taylor