We went to the historic cemetery for the same reason the two of us visit any historic landmark: because we both love true stories and the feeling of the past in those rare moments when fine details cause time to accordion in on itself, resulting in a rush that resonates from intellect to gut to your bones. We live in Atlanta, a city where history has been largely erased.
Sometimes? And I’m not kidding, here—It’s hidden below ground. I’m thinking now of the zero mile marker post for Terminus, the city that would later become Atlanta. That post is still physically located in the same spot where it was first placed in 1850, but now it’s in Underground Atlanta, a subsurface shopping mall boasting “220,000 feet of commercial space” with a side of history.
(From the “History” page on Underground Atlanta’s website:
“The railroad depot that stood between Pryor Street and Central Avenue was where Scarlett O’Hara and doctors worked frantically over Confederate soldiers, wounded in battles surrounding the city in the fictional movie ‘Gone with the Wind’….A Union camp was established near Underground Atlanta.”
Hoorah for mash-ups of history, fantasy and the present day! Care for an Orange Julius, Colonel?)
To tell it more accurately, the zero milepost is actually kind of adjacent to Underground, in a small, usually-locked office owned by Georgia State University. Not a lot of people know about it. The same is true of a lot of the history here, which is what makes it deeply satisfying, in a scavenger-hunt sort of way, to experience brushes with it. Or maybe I’m just the sort of budding historiphile who’se also a masochist. I’m not sure yet. (Seriously. I went to New Orleans a few weeks after this and the living, breathing presence of history everywhere I turned kind of totally blew my mind to pieces.)
Anyway, I had a magazine assignment to write a short-short about historic cemeteries around town. My smart editor ticked some off—“You know, so, Oakland and South-View of course, and maybe one or two more.” South-View is a renowned historic African American cemetery. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never been.
I did not admit I’d never been. Well, I guess I’m admitting it now.
South-View Cemetery is in Jonesboro, just south of Atlanta, and it’s huge. 200 acres, first established in the late 1800s, during Reconstruction. The interpretive brochure on the Cemetery is refreshingly blunt.
“Blacks had grown tired of the disrespect they were forced to endure in order to bury their family members and friends. They had to enter cemeteries through back gates, and even wade through swamped to conduct funeral services. They were told, ‘If you don’t like it, start your own cemetery,’ And so they did.”
A small group of business owners established South-View in 1886. Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Senior, are buried here, as well as a host of famous names like Alonzo Herndon and John Wesley Dobbs. Others, too, not so famous: Business-people who ran grocery stores and nightclubs. The first principal of the first black high school.
And if you stop for just two seconds and consider this as you walk the place and look at each quiet grave, you realized how extraordinary this was. Schoolteacher. (Carrie Watts.) Drugstore owner. (Clayton Yates.) These were the first generations of people to obtain these roles after Emancipation from enslavement, in circumstances geared absolutely against them. Walking through South-View, we watched the strata build for successive achievements: Here was the first African American man ever to graduate from West Point; here was grandfather of Atlanta’s first black mayor.
Midway through the audio tour we came upon a gravestone whose rounded top bore a broken bite-mark. This was the grave of George “Union” Wilder, a Civil War veteran who was shot and killed, according to the audio tour, after arming his neighbors during the imprecisely-named “Race Riots” of 1906 in Atlanta—really, a widespread slaughter of black citizens by white citizens following a race-baiting gubernatorial campaign and a series of fallacious newspaper stories about the rape of white women by black men.
According to official accounts of the time, 25 black people and one white person were killed. Historians have since placed the likely number of deaths of people of color at more than 100. Although South-View contains a number of unmarked burials from the riot, Wilder’s is the only identified grave.
20 years before the riots, Henry Grady optimistically proclaimed a “new south” composed of a people unified, looking boldly forward, with no rancor or bias in their hearts. One ordinary Sunday a century later, we visited a place that put us face to face with evidence contradicting that ideal. That evidence is small, easy to walk right by without noticing, and nearly impossible to read, but once you see it, it’s striking. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.