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Memorial garden set for dedication where more than 1,100 African-Americans are buried in unmarked graves
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Gainesville elected officials will join with members of local churches and civic organizations Sunday at Alta Vista Cemetery to dedicate a memorial garden where more than 1,100 African-Americans are buried in unmarked graves. - photo by Scott Rogers

In what some are calling an opportunity to foster racial healing and reconciliation, Gainesville elected officials will join with members of local churches and civic organizations Sunday to dedicate a memorial garden where more than 1,100 African-Americans are buried in unmarked graves.

The highlight of a short dedication ceremony that begins at 2 p.m. Sunday will be the unveiling of a 7-foot tall black granite monument anchoring the memorial garden between sections 16 and 17 at the city-owned Alta Vista Cemetery where most of the unmarked graves rest.

Mayor Danny Dunagan will read a proclamation and help Councilwoman Barbara Brooks unveil the monument.

An inscription on the monument honors the once forgotten graves: “This monument honors the more than 1,100 unmarked graves of African-Americans interred in sections 16 and 17 prior to Alta Vista’s integration. This memorial stands as our testament that these citizens are important to this community and we embrace them as our own.”

Adrian Niles, a local pastor who is a former city employee and now heads maintenance and operations for the Gainesville school district, will officiate the ceremony. The program includes an a cappella rendition of two negro spirituals by the St. John Baptist Church chorus.

Dunagan said he’s seen photos of the monument, but won’t see it up close until the unveiling.

Brooks — the lone African-American and minority on council — spearheaded the project. She said the monument is augmented by six black granite benches surrounding it.

The benches are inscribed in gold with the name of of the sponsoring organization that purchased them — the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society, the Fair Street Butler Alumni Association, Grace Episcopal Church, the Greater Northwestern Baptist Association, Gainesville Friends of the Park and Greenway, and Brooks’ husband, James.

“Mr. Brooks got (a bench) for his grandmother and great-grandmother who are buried out there,” she said. “He doesn’t know where they are. They both died before he was born or shortly thereafter. He never met them. He knows they’re out there, so he got one for them.”

Dunagan said landscaping is being finished up this week. City crews recently poured a walkway extending from a side street to sections 16 and 17.  

“I went out there with Ms. Brooks, and the setting where it’s going to be is just beautiful,” Dunagan said. “It’s a very fitting tribute.”

Last year Gainesville City Council approved spending $12,000 for ground-penetrating sonar to locate the graves, which are now marked with a numbered silver disc.

Brooks deflects credit to others on the dedication committee for making the project a reality. Brooks said she and Councilman George Wangemann sat on the committee, heard what others wanted to do and reported back to city council.

“The committee did the work, we just connected what they wanted to the council,” Brooks said. “There needed to be representation from the community who have a stake in that cemetery. It would have been fitting for them to have driven this project, and they did.”

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