Oakland Cemetery Tornado Damage Update

The Historic Oakland Foundation now has a page up on their web site describing some of the damage to the property with a few photographs from the grounds, here:

Historic Oakland Cemetery Badly Damaged

As they state and as I discovered on Saturday, the property is currently closed for the reasons described in the article.

If you’ve enjoyed my writing and photography on this site and have ever thought about supporting it, please consider making a financial contribution to Oakland’s rebuilding efforts instead. The address for donations (also listed at the end of their article) is:

Historic Oakland Foundation
248 Oakland Avenue SE
Atlanta, GA 30312

Here are a couple of photographs I took back in November, 2007, while researching the Cemetery’s history, showing the Fickett monument:

Here’s that same monument now (photograph from the Foundation’s article):

If you’ve been following my series of articles on the Cemetery or have looked at any of my Flickr pictures of the property, you know I consider it a treasured historical and community resource unlike anything I had ever seen until I started learning about it. If you’re able to make even a small donation to helping the Cemetery’s reconstruction efforts, you’ll be honoring the memories of those who are buried there and you’ll also be recognizing the critical significance of Atlanta’s few remaining truly historical sites. Give Oakland a bit of help and I guarantee you that the next time you consider the meaning of some place of history or community that matters to you, you’ll look at it with a greater awareness and understanding of what these places really mean to our lives, our neighborhoods, and our place in this world.

I’ll be resuming my articles on the Cemetery and the neighborhood’s history within a few days….

Exploring Place: Oakland Cemetery, Part Three – Atlanta Tornado!

Nearly every evening last week, I worked on what was to be the third article in my series on Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, based on the Exploring Place: History class that I took in 2007. (The previous article in this series is here, and all my articles on Oakland are here.) This middle segment of the class was the most substantial, because in it I extended my Oakland research into the surrounding neighborhood streets, exploring history as it played out on Decatur Street, Boulevard, Memorial Drive, and Martin Luther King Drive. The old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills and the Cabbagetown district were part of that research, and I had started writing about them in that article.

The article remains unfinished. Little did I know that Atlanta would get hit by one of the few tornados this region has ever seen, on the evening of Friday, March 14, and that the tornado’s path would take it through the very areas I was writing about. The map below was supposed to be part of the original article, as a way of orienting the geography of the article in the same way it helped me organize my research.


View Larger Map

If you look to the right of Oakland Cemetery on the map above, you’ll see a section bordered by Boulevard, Decatur Street, and Memorial Drive (highway 154). This is the area in my neighborhood that sustained the most damage; this is where the Cabbagetown district is located, and the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill property is in the space where Boulevard and Decatur Street intersect, just above Carroll Street SE on this map. My home is less than a mile from this spot … and yes, an incoming tornado really does sound like a freight train. I hope I never hear that sound again.

I had the bright idea yesterday morning of heading over to Oakland Cemetery to take a few pictures of the damage to the Cotton Mill building. Hard to believe that it never occurred to me that the Cemetery itself might have sustained some damage, and I imagined just walking onto the property up to the northeast corner that I was so familiar with, and zooming in on the mill buildings.

Until I got there, that is, and saw this:

These trees had been knocked down just inside the entrance gate (at the intersection of Oakland Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, just above the “e” in “Memorial” on the map). A security guard was keeping people out … well, everyone except this dude with a camera who failed to come tell me how to sneak onto the property.

In any case, I wandered up and down Memorial Drive and Oakland Avenue, taking pictures over the brick wall that surrounds Cemetery. This shot is one of several I took of the Confederate Memorial, looking so strange with the trees that used to surround it now down on the ground.

Not far from the Memorial lies the Confederate section of the Cemetery, where several of the giant trees are either uprooted or shattered near the base of their trunks:

Some areas are just a chaos of twisted branches; it’s hard to even remember or describe how these spots, for example, looked before Friday evening:

The rest of the pictures I took of the damage to the Cemetery are in a Flickr set that I added this morning:

Oakland Cemetery Set 5 – Tornado Damage

I didn’t venture into the Cabbagetown neighborhood (I don’t know if I would have been able to anyway), and even though I walked Decatur Street to the north of the cemetery, I decided not to take any pictures of the private businesses or private homes that sustained damage. There is plenty of coverage of that; you can take a look at the Atlanta tornado article on Wikipedia for list of local news sources.

Damage from the tornados and from a series of powerful storms that repeatedly swept across Georgia Friday and throughout the day Saturday is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with many people suffering tremendous damage to or total losses of their homes and businesses. The American Red Cross has, as always, a highly visible presence providing folks with assistance throughout the state; if you want to help, consider making a donation here.

Exploring Place: Oakland Cemetery, Part Two

[The following is a slightly modified version of the opening section of one of the research papers I wrote on Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery for the Exploring Place: History class that I took in 2007. The previous article in this series is here, and all my articles on Oakland are here.]

On the early evening of October 31, 2007, I sat on the ground among the graves of the Confederate soldiers in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, watching the late day sunlight change the headstone colors from white and gray to a soft, faded orange. Row after row of these headstones – many with names engraved on them, many without – stretched up the hill in front of me, and out in all directions among the trees and throughout the grass surrounding me. Off to the northwest side of the cemetery, beyond where I could see, a freight train coupled an engine to its cars and the air around me cracked as the train sections connected. The earth rumbled for several seconds – I could feel it and hear it – and then fell silent. A sharp, cold breeze struck the back of my neck as a handful of brittle magnolia leaves dropped from a tree nearby, drifting to the ground around one of the headstones without making a sound.

I had my camera with me, of course, since it seemed I couldn’t visit Oakland without taking my camera and have over a thousand pictures chronicling the time I’ve spent there. It took me a second to realize that I had started to take a picture and was holding the camera suspended in mid-air, halfway to my face when the explosive thunder from the train stopped me. I was holding my breath, and in those few seconds suddenly wondering about the meaning of this place where I sat on the ground, frozen stiff in the act of composing a photograph, staring at the Confederate gravestones.

I took a first shot, a wide shot of the field in front of me, showing countless stones glowing or submerged in long shadows, the inscriptions and the names and dates barely visible…

I zoomed in and took a second shot, and the words “Confederate States Army” started to show on many of the gravestones….

On the third shot, the names of men who died for the South in the Civil War could be clearly seen, yet there were dozens and dozens of them – too many to remember, too many for my mind to comprehend….

I took my fourth and final shot, a very close zoom, focusing on a single headstone near the trunk of the magnolia tree, where I saw just one inscription:

“T. Roberts, 23rd Alabama Infantry, Company I, Confederate States Army.”

I have no idea who T. Roberts was and will probably never know. I couldn’t even find out what the “T” stands for. He was not a prominent southern general whose importance will get his name mentioned on the Oakland Cemetery tours, or in the books written about Oakland or Atlanta or Georgia or the Civil War.

He was, however, one man, a single and irreplaceable individual, a person who once had a life that he lost during a war, whose name would not even be known to me but for the fact that he had lost it during that war. Yet for those few minutes on that Halloween evening, and for the time I spent wondering about who he might have been, or what he might have looked like, or what unbearable injuries he might have suffered before he died … we were connected across time and space, at a quickly shifting point where our lives – rather, his death and my life – intersected. And that, I realized, was the meaning and significance of this complex and amazing historical place.

In the first parts of my research into Oakland, I puzzled a little over the difference between a place like Oakland as an active element of a region’s history — that is, a place where historical events actually occurred — and as a more passive one because of its nature as a cemetery. As I continued my research, I became much less concerned with the difference between the two, having discovered that the difference didn’t matter that much. All historical places function in both ways: Oakland, in that sense, is no different than, say, the Georgia State Capitol, or a Civil War battlefield, or a historically significant factory like the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills — so the distinction I was trying to make between active and passive places became irrelevant. That Oakland’s configured as a place where people are buried and memorialized is simply a characteristic of the location itself, and isn’t nearly as important to studying its history as it might seem.

With that in mind, my research began to take a different approach to examining the cemetery and its history in more detail. Rather than attempting to localize events to the cemetery grounds themselves, I started using the cemetery as a focal point for some of the history of the surrounding area, including the neighborhoods and streets that geographically intersect with Oakland. While that seemed at first to point me toward coincidental renderings of historical circumstances and events, it soon became apparent that what it did instead was highlight Oakland’s history within the context of Atlanta’s history. It also enabled an exploration of the relationship between the cemetery and the city from several different perspectives – such as social structures, segregation, architectural symbolism, southern Victorian mores, and the political and economic histories of the area. With that as background, I began to explore Oakland as a historical focal point for the history of the community where I live, which I’ll discuss in more detail in my next article.

Exploring Place: Oakland Cemetery, Part One

My Exploring Place: History class wrapped up at the end of December, and I’ve started sketching out a series of articles about my research on Oakland Cemetery. You can read my first two articles, written during the early days of the class when I had just started exploring the Cemetery, here. I have to say that when I originally decided that Oakland would be my research topic for the class, I really had no idea how I’d go about the research and writing. By the time I was about five or six weeks into it, however, it seemed like the opposite had occurred: it became a real challenge to pare things down to reasonable levels for the class, because my exploration took on a pretty complicated life of its own, leading me in all sorts of unexpected directions.

I ended out writing three research papers (in addition to a proposal) on the Cemetery, and one final paper where I explained how the theoretical ideas embodied in our course reading assignments guided me and affected my research and writing. I considered posting the papers in their entirety here, but have decided against it — opting instead to excerpt or adapt them for the more conversational tone of a weblog. I also still have a large number of photographs from two final visits there — that I haven’t reviewed yet or posted anywhere — photographs taken when my research pointed me to something specific about the Cemetery that I wanted to capture in images. In many cases, the photographs related to the stories of particular people or events, so I’ll include them here as I write about those particulars. I thought I would break ground, however, by describing some of the resources I used to complement the tours and events I attended, and my frequent photo-walking trips to the Cemetery itself.

The background for the class came from Robert Archibald’s A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community. Archibald uses a visit to his hometown to begin his thoughtful analysis of the relationships among place, history, and memory, and he explains how our thinking about these things intersects with our ideas about the kinds of cultural and social structures we build into (or fail to build into) our communities. He expands from there into discussions about the roles of public and academic historians in the community, advocating for an approach that combines social and cultural activism with the work of the historian. His ideas about historians engaging with their communities and involving themselves in decisions about such things as urban design and the use of public spaces struck me as a very unique perspective — something I, at least, had not previously encountered. Archibald has a lot to say about why we study history, and I’ll write a good bit more about his book shortly.

About ten years ago, maybe longer, I bought Franklin Garrett’s Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of its People and Events, a two-volume history of Atlanta that, I’ve heard, Garrett started by creating a necrology of everyone buried at Oakland Cemetery.  I had never read these books before, but ended out using them constantly throughout the project. You can read a little more about Garrett here. Garrett’s coverage of Oakland Cemetery in the two volumes is extensive; his profiles of the people of Atlanta often conclude with a statement that they’re buried at Oakland — and Garrett, too, is buried at Oakland, under a prominent headstone near the entrance to the cemetery in a plot that he shares with his wife.

There were two books that I turned to repeatedly throughout the project, that I initially used to develop an understanding of Oakland’s physical and geographic characteristics: Historic Oakland Cemetery by Tevi Taliaferro and The Historic Oakland Cemetery of Atlanta: Speaking Stones by Cathy Kaemmerlen. Both books discuss the history of the Cemetery and some of the notable people buried there, with Kaemmerlen’s book exploring the stories of some of those people in greater detail. I had the good fortune of meeting Kaemmerlen at Oakland’s Sunday in the Park Victorian Festival in October, where she engaged audiences with storytelling then signed copies of her book afterward. You can read more about Kaemmerlen at her Tattling Tales website, here.

It was from Kaemmerlen’s book that I learned that Oakland was among numerous American cemeteries that could be classified as Victorian Garden Cemeteries, created during the American Victorian era and embodying that period’s unique architectural, symbolic, and metaphorical characteristics, as well as Victorian ideas about the relationship between life and death. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (founded in 1831) was the first such cemetery. You can read more about the history of Mount Auburn here, and see some photos (where the similarities to Oakland are very apparent) here.

I used Thomas J. Schlereth’s Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 to help me get a better grasp on how Victorian beliefs were reflected in cemeteries like Oakland. Schlereth’s book is one of the best I’ve read about Victorian America, covering everything from the details of ordinary daily life through Victorian anxieties about modern culture through, of course, how the Victorians embraced a unique and new approach to memorializing those who passed away through elaborate funeral processions and cemetery architecture.

My exposure to some of the stories of Oakland started with Kaemmerlen then continued with the masterful book about the Leo Frank case by Steve Oney, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. From Oney’s book, I excerpted his evocative description of the  surreptitious Oakland burial of the ashes of Frank’s wife Lucy by her nephews in 1946, six years after she died and six months after one of her nephews had been given ashes — the long time period between her death and the secret burial of her ashes stemming from the controversy over the case and the strong current of anti-Jewish sentiment that existed in Atlanta in the 1940s. Lucy’s ashes were buried between the headstones of her parents (Emil and Josephine) with no marker — though, as Kaemmerlen notes, someone has placed a small porcelain angel marking the location of the ashes.

That small angel, between the tall gray headstones, is one of the Oakland images that will stick with me forever.

You can read more about Mary Phagan’s murder — it occurred on Confederate Memorial Day (which used to be celebrated on April 26) in 1913 — and some details about the Frank case here. I’ll come back to it in a later article also; I’m still reading Oney’s book and hope to finish it before I attend an exhibition about the case at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in February.

The final topic that I began to examine in the first research paper had to do with memory and memorializing — specifically, southern memorializing of the Confederacy in the post-Civil War period. To ground me in some of the theory about southern identity and southern memory, I read The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory by W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Brundage does an excellent job describing southern identity in its cultural and social contexts, and his explanation of the role of women in trying to rebuild southern identity through memorials at places like Oakland was especially useful.

Hmmmmmm… I had intended to describe nearly all the resources I used in this single article, but it seems to be getting waaaaaayy too long. Since the second and third papers — where I looked at the history of Oakland’s neighborhood and how the Cemetery reflected race and class issues — brought me into contact with a very large number of books, articles, and web sites … I think I’ll clip this post here and pick up where I left off later in the week.

Thanks for reading!

New Photos! Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery

A collection of photos of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery that I’ve taken over the past few weeks is here:

Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery

I’ve organized the photos into loosely-related sets by some unidentifiable criteria for now. Eventually I’ll expand the sets and separate the photos by cemetery section; but I have to take quite a few more first. My earlier article is here, and many thanks to those who stopped by to read it and to those who’ve left comments.

I also updated the sidebar with links to slideshows, by set.

The cemetery was on someone else’s mind this week also. Take a look at this fine article — Living Among the Dead — at Georgia On My Mind.

Bye for now!

Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: Preview of an Obsession

I’m going to be studying Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery for my Exploring Place: History class. I had planned to do something similar for a couple of my past classes, but ended out choosing other topics that at the time were more in tune with the course material. Now, however, with the class focused on the significance of a historical or community place, research on Oakland was an excellent fit. I’ll be doing a three-part paper, with one part focusing on the cemetery’s history, one part discussing the cemetery’s art, symbolism, and architecture, and one part assessing the meaning of the its role as a significant place in the community.

Until two weekends ago — despite living less than a mile away from the cemetery for just about three years — I had not been on the property, and had only once or twice peeked over the brick walls that surround the entire 88 acres.

The walls themselves are about five feet high, higher in some places or at least so constructed to contour with hills on the property that they seem higher. As soon as you pass through the gate, you can’t help but get the feeling — as the streets, cars, and pedestrians all disappear from view — that you’ve left your whole world outside. And despite the freight trains just beyond the walls, and the occasional Marta train passing through the air nearby, silence follows you in.

As you walk forward, you pass a guardhouse  (I should get a picture of that), and you’re usually greeted if not by a person then at least by the muffled sounds of a radio transmission: a baseball game or a bit of music. You imagine, even though you don’t see it, that it’s an old radio, one of the first ones ever made, and you somehow know exactly what it looks like. By the time you walk a few more feet to the Welcome to Oakland sign, you’re very nearly disoriented: there’s something slightly disconcerting about passing dozens of headstones and a few mausoleums then coming in contact with a welcome sign. Yet that’s one of the most fascinating things about being there: the slightly edgy sense that you’re disconnected from the place as you visit it, and the sense that memory, history, architecture, art, beauty, sadness, and grief are all juxtaposed there — and that once you see it, you can’t possibly forget what you’ve seen.

I really had no idea what to expect, and that’s  what has hit me from attending just one guided tour and from my three solitary visits to take pictures: I had no idea what to expect. I’m not sure I know what else to expect, either; which, in case you haven’t figured it out, is my reason for writing this piece.

On my very first visit there, I paid for my spot on the tour, then sat outside the visitor center, since I was a few minutes early. I turned my head to the left….

… and I suspect that for the rest of my life, this image will coincide with the word “gray” whenever I see it, say it, hear it, or write it. Who is this “Gray” who’s buried beneath this stone’s frozen grief? I have no idea; but believe me, by the time I’m done, I’ll know.

The tour guide took us through nearly the entire property; I had thought it might take an hour or so, but took well over two. By the time we were finished, I had a pretty good sense of the layout of the grounds and about the key historical figures who are buried or entombed there, and left with at least a smattering of knowledge about how the the cemetery fit into Atlanta’s history. The rest of my research will take place around a half-dozen more tours, each of which focuses on one aspect of the cemetery and its history, or on its architecture and symbolism.

It’s hard to imagine what I’ll think of this place by the time I’m done. There’s so much more than any one thing to think about that it’s almost overwhelming, and I feel like I’ll become (if I’ve not already become) immersed in it and obsessed with it. It has objective significance as a place of history; it has subjective significance as a place of emotion and memory. It’s crowded and hard to navigate in some areas; in others — like where 17,000 unidentified people are buried in an area called Potter’s field — the space is so wide and open it leaves you breathless. The sights and scenes are sometimes difficult to photograph, yet at the same time thrilling to photograph — as you watch how the magnolias and oaks, green lawns, stone, and light all interact, changing by the second, becoming especially beautiful as the sun sets and evening folds in. It’s life and death, moving and still.

There’s so much to see, so much to contemplate and wonder about. I still have tons yet to learn, and of course in addition to the tours I have a foot-high stack of books and articles to wade through. So for now, I can only write from what I feel about it, from my reaction to what I’ve seen so far, and from the images I’ve accumulated with my camera and inside my head.

As you might expect from a cemetery in the South, there are monuments to the Civil War, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederacy, such as this one:

And there’s this one, the “Lion of Atlanta” that memorializes the thousands of unknown southern soldiers — and parts of soldiers — buried in one section of the cemetery:

But there are also angels:

and fairies:

and rabbits:

and “castles”:

and sights very beautiful:

and sights that are almost too difficult to contemplate or see…

… all reminding you that — after all — it’s a cemetery … where the living and the dead, where the present and the past, where our love of life and our acceptance of how short it is … all, somehow, converge.