Meriwether Rhodes thought she had found a great place to walk her dogs. It was 2005 and she’d recently moved to the Beechwood Hills area; nearby she happened on a field, wooded, with paths. Perfect!
But upon closer inspection, it wasn’t a field at all or a stand of trees. It was a graveyard, wild and overgrown. Her curiosity led to the library and a copy of a previous historic survey. Page copies in hand, Rhodes would walk her dogs and check off names; on other days, she’d clip back bushes.
Her research showed The Brooklyn Cemetery was established in 1882 by the Bethlehem Cemetery Society for the black residents who lived in the Brooklyn-Hawthorne area outside the city. Throughout history, people created these societies, which provided for voluntary subscriptions for funeral expenses. The last original trustees died in 1957 and approximately four acres was sold to provide upkeep on Brooklyn. Some of the bodies were disinterred and moved to East Lawn but in time, money ran out to provide perpetual care. The last burial was in the 1990s.
Not long after her personal project began, Rhodes encountered Clarke Middle School teacher, Karl Scott and resident Alvin Sheats, who both wanted to do something to honor the dead. An informal group got together and did the first cleanup in 2006. It was then that Linda Davis moved back to her hometown.
Oppressed in life
Disrespected in death
There was rumor and conjecture that some wanted to turn the cemetery into a park. Davis, whose grandparents are buried there, took on the project as a mission.
“It has become my passion, my commitment,” she says. “I couldn’t see it going from a sacred purpose to a park.”
With the formation of The Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery, a 501c3, serious work could begin. Rhodes kept up her research through online death and census records, and visits to local African-American funeral homes. And so far, instead of the 227 graves identified in the earlier historic survey, she’s verified 1,100 names of people buried in the graveyard. Her research speaks loudly of black history.
Records identify them in the roles society allowed at the time, teachers and preachers but also draymen [wagon drivers], porters, janitors, Rhodes found. Many of the death certificates have “unknown” on them.
While some graves have no markers, rusted metal funeral home stakes, handmade markers, or just stones, others do identify over 40 veterans from three wars (WWI, WWII, Korean); 96 people born into slavery, and lots of babies’ graves. Using the help of Eagle Scout Roark Bailey and GPS technology, Rhodes has created a basic walking map that gives insight into the original layout. She has also uploaded her 11 years of research to the national website Find A Grave.
“Each had a life – loved…and was loved.”
Working the master plan
Since she became the “Friends” coordinator in 2006, Davis and her board have worked with nearly 700 volunteers on myriad tasks. Classes in UGA’s School of Environmental Design worked on a master plan from 2009 – 2011. The plan is online at the cemetery website and it’s what the Friends follow and raise money to implement.
So far, there has been an enormous amount of dead tree removal and invasive plant clearing. In January, new gates by metal sculptor Harold Rittenberry were installed and dedicated. And in May, the Friends were presented with The President’s Award from the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.
“It’s a way to pay homage to our ancestors”
Working on the cemetery is a labor of love for Davis. “It’s a way to pay homage to our ancestors.” In time, she envisions a sculpture garden to depict the lives and livelihoods of those buried there, and “a teaching tool for disenfranchised people.”
For more information on how to help or donate, go to www.brooklyncemetery.org. There’s also a facebook page.
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