Sections 16 and 17 at the Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville have headstones with dates that go back almost 200 years, well before the Civil War ripped the nation apart.
On a sunny day, light reflects from more than 1,100 silver discs placed on the ground throughout the graveyard at sections 16 and 17. The little silver markers represent the unmarked graves of hundreds of African-Americans buried at the back of the cemetery.
“Everybody in the black community knew about this grave, but because they were unmarked and unnumbered there was no way to know how many people were out there,” said Barbara Brooks, the lone African-American member of Gainesville City Council.
Brooks is thrilled that in the coming weeks the city will include in its fiscal year 2018 budget funds to install a memorial garden between sections 16 and 17 at the cemetery. Brooks and Councilman George Wangemann are nonvoting members of a committee with five representatives from the black community who are planning a special program when the memorial garden is dedicated this fall.
Brooks said plans are to hold the dedication between mid-October and mid-November. She said the Rev. Adrian Niles, a former Gainesville employee now director of maintenance and operations for the Gainesville school district, will direct the program. Brooks added that the committee is putting together a community choir with members from different churches that will sing classic African-American spirituals.
“Whatever church wants to be represented on that choir can be there,” Brooks said. “We don’t want to leave anybody out.”
The highlight of the program will be the dedication of a black stone monument that will have an inscription to memorialize the nameless graves. Brooks said the inscription will be something to the effect of: “Welcome back to the community.”
Brooks said the memorial garden will consist of a paved entryway between sections 16 and 17, space for the monument, three benches and landscaping.
The Gainesville Department of Public Works, under the direction of Chris Rotalsky, oversees the two city-owned cemeteries.
In a recent report to city council, Rotalsky said 848 unmarked burials were located in sections 16 and 17 by a contracted private company that used sonar technology. Rotalsky said the company located an additional 300 unmarked graves in the pauper’s section of the cemetery.
“Nearly 1,200 unmarked burials are identified,” Rotalsky said. “Our cemetery is pretty old and it has a lot of areas that was utilized in that fashion.”
Rotalsky said his fiscal 2018 budget will include funds for the installation of a memorial garden at that section of the cemetery.
“It can be a really special place for those 1,200 graves we don’t really have much history on,” he said.
In his book “Blood at the Root,” Patrick Phillips traces the history of some of the unnamed blacks buried in Gainesville’s cemetery to the ouster of almost 1,100 black residents from neighboring Forsyth County in 1912. Phillips recounts the history of the expulsion and how Forsyth remained nearly all white well into the 1990s.
In researching the book released in September, Phillips came to Gainesville and sought the help of Brooks and the Black History Society to speak with descendents of some of the people who were run out of Forsyth County.
Brooks said Phillips will be in Gainesville on Aug. 5 to discuss his book and hold a book signing at Grace Episcopal Church.
The cost of the memorial garden has yet to be determined, according to Todd Beebe, deputy director of public services. Beebe said some work will be done in-house by public works, while the purchase and inscription of the monument will be contracted out. Beebe said public works spent approximately $12,000 in the fiscal 2017 budget to located the unmarked burials.
Brooks said the Gainesville-Hall County Black History Society and Grace Episcopal Church have pledged to sponsor two of the benches to be placed at the garden. She said the committee is looking for a third sponsor.
Brooks is the first to acknowledge the city’s role in doing something to recognize the unmarked graves. She said the initiative started before she was first elected to city council in 2015.
“The city is willing to undertake this project at its own expense,” Brooks said. “I am so impressed by Gainesville. ... Nobody that’s living today can be held responsible for blacks being in the back of the cemetery. I’m just impressed with Gainesville at being willing — not take responsibility for it — but make things right for something that somebody else did. I’m impressed with that.”