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Unmarked Burials in Oakland Cemetery’s African-American Grounds Identified

By Pamela Henman
Preparing for its next phase of restoration, Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) recently conducted a geophysical survey of the African-American section in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta’s oldest municipal burial ground.
“HOF is spending a large part of 2016 researching and preparing to work in the African-American section next year,” said Neale Nickels, director of preservation at HOF. “We are gathering community support and interest and hope that in addition to a restoration of the hardscape and landscape, we will be able to add to our already well-rounded educational programming.”
Historic African-American burial traditions utilized natural markers like wood, shrubbery, or flowers, which have been lost through the passage of time. Therefore, much of this section of Oakland Cemetery is bereft of headstones or other visual markers. To determine what lies beneath, HOF partnered with Atlanta-based remote sensing firm Bigman Geophysical for a technologically-advanced survey of the three acres comprising Oakland’s African-American grounds.
Bigman Geophysical spent several days at Oakland Cemetery, utilizing ground penetrating radar (GPR) and highly-precise GPS. The GPR waves reflect back when encountering a change in the material underground, such as a coffin. The GPR unit displayed a real-time cross-section of what is underground, and surveyors placed a flag on each location that detected a change in material. Those flag locations were then recorded with GPS and the data loaded into software that Bigman Geophysical then interpreted.
The result of the survey found some 872 probable unmarked burials in the African-American section. HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team will cross-reference the flagged locations with the cemetery’s burial records to verify the data.
“The power of this protection program at Oakland is that it illustrates just how much is there. We are happy that we could participate in locating over 800 possible unmarked graves and help reclaim the legacy that some of these folks may have lost,” said Daniel Bigman, president of Bigman Geophysical.
Part of the restoration effort includes outreach and engagement with descendants of Oakland Cemetery’s African-American residents. On Saturday, June 11, HOF will host a Juneteenth program featuring guided walking tours of the African American grounds, African American burial records research, information about the upcoming restoration efforts, and more. The program runs from 10:30am to 1:30pm, is free and open to the public and is appropriate for all ages.

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