Small flags mark possible grave sites in the African-American section of Oakland Cemetery.
Small flags mark possible grave sites in the African-American section of Oakland Cemetery.

Oakland Cemetery has discovered more than 800 unmarked graves in the African-American section of the historic burial ground.

Preparing for its next phase of restoration, the Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) recently conducted a geophysical survey of the African-American section in the cemetery and discovered some 872 probable grave sites. HOF’s Preservation, Restoration, and Operations (PRO) Team will cross-reference the flagged locations with the cemetery’s burial records to verify the data.

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, 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.

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.

Bigman Geophysical conducted the ground testing to search for the unmarked graves.

“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.”

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 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., is free and open to the public and is appropriate for all ages.

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Collin KelleyEditor

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.