A few thoughts come to mind after Sunday’s ceremony at Gainesville’s Alta Vista Cemetery to acknowledge the graves of more than 1,100 African-Americans that had remained unmarked for decades.
One is that it’s a source of pride for the city to make this dedication and honor its late residents so long after they passed. The touching ceremony brought together descendants of those buried in the cemetery who for many years lay in neglected repose at the city’s historic resting place.
But even in celebration, it was a reminder that such an honor was long overdue.
The event included spirituals, prayers, tributes and a proclamation as a 7-foot granite monument was unveiled to remember those buried at the site. “This memorial stands as our testament that these citizens are important to this community and we embrace them as our own,” it reads.
The memorial includes six black granite benches around the monument inscribed with sponsor names: 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 James Brooks, husband of City Council member Barbara Brooks, whose grandmother and great-grandmother are among those buried at the site.
The poignant ceremony lifted the hearts of those whose relatives were interred there yet unrecognized. Many, like James Brooks, know they have loved ones there but don’t know exactly which grave may be theirs.
“He doesn’t know where they are,” Barbara Brooks said. “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.”
It was thought a few hundred such graves might exist in the section that had been set aside for the city’s black residents decades ago. Many had been marked only by rocks long since moved; others had no markings at all, their relatives unable to afford headstones at the time. Some buried there were believed to have been tied to the mass migration of black residents who were run out of Forsyth County between 1912 and 1920.
Gainesville then invested $12,000 to commission an underground search via sonar equipment and found more than 1,000 unmarked graves. Once discovered, the graves were designated with flags and silver discs embedded in the ground to serve as some indicator of where the deceased are buried.
Though the ceremony and monument helped right a wrong, it serves as a sad reminder of how so many people were treated at one time. Where white graves were clearly marked for visitation by survivors and generations to come, hundreds more were confined to a segregated area in the rear, the burial equivalent of “the back of the bus.” This was the norm in the segregated South of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even in a town like Gainesville that largely avoided much of the racial unrest experienced elsewhere.
Much credit goes to Mayor Danny Dunagan and the City Council, led by Council members Brooks and George Wangemann, for initiating the effort, taking the time and committing the resources to right a wrong with Sunday’s dedication.
“We’re not looking back, but we’re looking forward. And I am very proud of my city. ... Today, all of us can be proud of the final resting place for these — our people,” Brooks said.
“We may never be able to document the lives of those buried in these sections, but we can honor them and dignify their final resting place with positive actions that benefit the community as a whole,” Dunagan cited from the proclamation.
“We can’t go back and relive the past,” said the Rev. Adrian Niles, who officiated the ceremony. “But you can correct the future. You can move forward, you can do justly, you can walk humbly with thy God.”
Indeed, we can’t wipe out the bigotry that plagued our history, but we can remember so it won’t be repeated, and make an effort going forward to treat all of our neighbors with respect, affection and dignity.
As Councilwoman Brooks stated when the plans for the event were first set in July of last year: “They lived and they died. They’re ours.”
They are all of ours, and now recognized as such. May they continue to rest in peace, no longer forgotten by the city they called home.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.