Perhaps nowhere is the lost history of Gainesville’s African-American community more obvious than in the 1,148 unmarked graves recently identified at the Alta Vista cemetery.
“At one time, you were not as welcome,” Councilwoman Barbara Brooks said, as if speaking directly to the dead, while visiting the cemetery on Friday morning. “But now you are.”
Their discovery was made with ground-penetrating radar technology. Bright orange flags, like those used to survey land, were placed at each gravesite across two sections of the cemetery traditionally reserved for blacks.
Those flags have now been replaced with flat, silver discs, each numbered to reflect the vast groves of the formerly unrecognized deceased.
“Finally, finally, we know where they are,” said Brooks, the lone African-American on the City Council. “We know where they are. These people are important to us.”
This part of the cemetery has long been known as the “colored folks” section, Brooks said. It was developed in a time when racial segregation was the norm in both life and death.
Some graves were likely once marked with rocks, Brooks said, discernible only in their size, shape or color by family members who placed them. But weather and time displaced these makeshift markers, leaving wide swaths of the cemetery looking vacant and empty.
Lifelong Gainesville resident Willie Glenn said his grandmother, Pearl Reader, whose home he grew up in, is buried at Alta Vista. So, too, his is mother’s sister. Both passed several decades ago.
“Neither one of those have a headstone,” Glenn said. “I wonder where they’re buried at.”
Glenn said that in older times his family could not afford a proper headstone and burial service, which may have been common in the local black community some generations ago.
Then there is the hard reality that some people simply die alone, unknown to their grave diggers.
“You wouldn’t think there’s that many people buried there,” Glenn said, shaking his head. “Let alone unmarked graves.”
The sections where these unmarked graves were found are protected by large, shady oak trees on a hill overlooking an expanse of flower-adorned graves and even a few mausoleums beyond.
Brooks believes some of the black families buried here might have first come to Gainesville seeking refuge from white lynch mobs in neighboring Forsyth County in the early 20th century.
Census records confirm a mass exodus of African-Americans from Forsyth, with thousands displaced or having moved on between 1912 and 1920.
“There’s no need to apologize because we know it wasn’t us,” Brooks said of the violent legacy of slavery and segregation that impoverished so many African-American families for generations.
There is now an opportunity to forgive the past and embrace the present. It’s time to own it all, Brooks said.
A group of city and community leaders plan to meet July 27 to discuss a memorial service to be held sometime this fall in honor of those buried here in obscurity.
There is no telling who they were, or what contribution they made to society, Brooks said.
Without a proper headstone identifying their dates of birth and death, as well as life’s hard-learned wisdom in an epitaph for the ages, Brooks hopes a service will help resurrect the memory of these forgotten souls.
Brooks said plans are in the works to also erect a memorial sign at the cemetery to remember those whose names are unknown to history’s annals.
Benches might also be placed at the site so visitors can sit and reflect in the solemn, but beautiful, location.
Brooks said it’s important that blacks, whites, Latinos and other races come together at the memorial service this fall in the spirit of healing and unity.
“I’m proud that Gainesville wants to do that,” she added. “They lived and they died. They’re ours.”