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 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.


New Photos! from Zoo Atlanta (and a bit of zoo history)

For the past several weekends, I’ve spent my Saturday or Sunday afternoons at Zoo Atlanta, which is located a few blocks from my home in Grant Park. As usual, I took a large number of photographs, ending out with nearly a thousand that I culled to a few hundred then uploaded some of my favorites to Flickr.

I learned a little about the history of the zoo while working on my Oakland Cemetery research, and discovered that Zoo Atlanta was one of many American zoos founded during the American Victorian era.  Following the Europeans — for whom, as A. N. Wilson describes in The Victorians, zoos were a cultural and scientific fascination — Americans also located their zoos in or near Victorian garden parks that became so prevalent in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

According to Franklin M. Garrett’s Atlanta And Environs: A Chronicle of it’s People and Events, Zoo Atlanta came to be after an Atlanta lumberman, George Gress, purchased some animals at auction from a defunct circus in 1889. Gress offered the animals to the city of Atlanta, a “costly collection of wild animals” consisting of “one hyena, two African lionesses, two silver lions, one black bear, two wildcats, one jaguar, one gazelle, one coon, one elk, one Mexican hog, two deer, one camel, one dromedary, two monkeys, [and] two serpents.”

Garrett describes the early decades of the zoo as “not particularly distinguished” until 1935 — when Asa G. Candler, Jr. “made a tender to the city of his valuable private collection … of wild animals and birds which he housed in specially built cages and quarters on his Briarcliff Road estate.”  Zoo Atlanta’s history page describes this incident also, and both Garrett and the Zoo explain how the Candler’s donation resolved the imaginable (or unimaginable!) problem of neighborhood complaints about the noise and smells from the philanthropist’s collection, as well as the dilemma of the occasional escaping baboon. The transfer of nearly 100 birds and 84 other animals from Candler’s estate to Grant Park nearly doubled the size of the zoo, ushering in one of it’s periods of great popularity as a city attraction.

This early history — especially the connection between the birth of Zoo Atlanta and the American Victorian period — is certainly one of the reasons why I think it would have been an tragedy if the zoo had been relocated out of Grant Park, something that was being considered in 2007. A great part of the significance of Zoo Atlanta is its history, and what we would certainly consider today as an unusual physical space: the presence of a sizeable zoo in the middle of a city, surrounded by a massive park, next to the Atlanta Cyclorama, and nestled among the Victorian homes of the Grant Park neighborhood. While I’m sure the relocated zoo would have ultimately been spectacular, it could never have been like Zoo Atlanta, and the connection between the place and its history would have been forever lost. We should not be so willing to dissolve the bonds between the physical spaces we treasure, and the community and its history.

Now, to a few of the pictures….

The adult gorillas always strike me as so serious and intelligent looking. I swear, if the look in my eyes is ever as thoughtful as this gorilla, I’d be impressed with myself. This is my favorite shot of the gorilla; click the picture (and any of the pictures below) for a larger view.

The orangutans, on the other hand, alternate constantly among so many different expressions. I’m convinced that this one must have just pulled a prank on one of the others, and as you watch them play and interact with each other, you can’t help but notice the obvious relationships among them, and those relationships are seldom subtle and almost never deferential. The rest of the gorilla and orangutan pictures that I took on my three outings are here.

This was the first time in my recent frequent trips to the zoo that I’d seen the giraffes. I loved taking their pictures. I felt fortunate to get this shot, with this sort of composition, that I like to call “three-headed giraffe.” It’s three separate giraffes (of course!) but the flattening effect of the photo does make you look twice, doesn’t it? The other giraffe pictures are here.

It was a lazy day for the lemurs; it’s actually a little tough to get a shot like this, since they’re usually either tucked away in some corner of their space, or racing up and down the tree trunks and branches, or out of site in the lower sections of the exhibit.

I watched this pair of sleeping lemurs for a long time … half an hour or more maybe … and snapped several shots like this. What a great way to take a nap!

Meerkats are relatively new to the zoo, and they’re very photogenic. Well, that’s probably not that important — to the meerkats anyway — but they are fascinating to watch; and like the otters and lemurs, they’re constantly busy (at least when they’re not sleeping) and as you watch for a while, you can’t help but begin to notice how they relate to and interact with each other. The rest of the otter and meerkat pictures are here.

I don’t know what kind of birds these are (I call them toucans, yet I doubt that’s what they are), but the iridescent dark blue is amazing. My pictures from the outdoor aviary, along with some pictures of flamingos, are here.

Does this remind you of anyone? I hope not!

A better view, here:

The rest of the elephant pictures, with a few of some color-coordinated rhinos, are here.

No zoo would be complete without a goodly bunch of animals that make lots of people squirm, and Zoo Atlanta’s reptile house is no exception. This is one of my favorite shots, in terms of color, intensity, and overall squirminess. The rest of the reptile shots are here.

My recent extended visits have given me a new appreciation of the zoo, and have increased my curiosity about the history of zoos and their cultural significance. Here are links to two books on zoos and their history, and one on our relationship with animals and nature, about to become part of my library:

Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier

Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos by Elizabeth Hanson

Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon

More on the books when I read them. Thanks for stopping by; I hope you enjoyed this article and my photos from the Zoo!


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!