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American Lives

Gilbert Cemetery (Georgia)

by Laurie Stevens, 29 July 2021

 

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery is located about six miles (nine kilometers) south of the historic center of Atlanta, Five Points, and a little over one and-a-half miles (2.25 kilometers) from the Gilbert House, home of Jeremiah S Gilbert (1839-1932), the son of one of the earliest pioneers and also the first doctor in Fulton County.

The cemetery currently exists entirely within the circle formed by the Exit 241 ramp to Cleveland Avenue SW from Interstate 75 Southbound.

In 1861 Gilbert set aside a one acre plot to bury slaves and their family members; it also came to be the final resting place for the congregants of six churches, along with twelve pastors, and the members of one fraternal order.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Being one of the oldest black cemeteries in the area, there is evidence to believe that between 700 to possibly 1,500 African-American people are buried on the land, although the fifty-six present markers honor only a fraction of them.

According to the historical marker located on the plot, the cemetery was destroyed 'by persons unknown in the late 1950s'; the area called Perkerson (formerly Perkerson Park) in Atlanta was only fully developed in that decade.

The site as it exists today was an effort by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to create a memorial for the cemetery after evidence of a burial site came to be clear during a project in the early 1980s. A judge permitted continued highway construction so long as any known graves were not disturbed and an agreement was reached whereby the state would re-identify and memorialize the cemetery.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The efforts by GDOT were received with mixed emotions by the community. Even today, burial sites are discovered that have been paved over in the name of progress and the work to keep alive the stories of the people who came before sometimes falls to one elderly person, or simply to a marker placed by a government agency. Sometimes even that isn't available.

Historically marginalized communities often bear the mark of this treatment, especially in cities/areas which experience very active (re-)development over time.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The humble grave markers show only names - no dates or any other information about the people who lie beneath; the markers are made of the same concrete as the highway ramp that encircles them. Travelers may look to the west and wonder about the small patch of headstones. Long-time residents of Atlanta wonder about it also.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Hundreds of thousands of people pass by each day as they head south or north on Interstate 75 (I-75), which runs for 1,786 miles (2,875km), starting in suburban Miami and ending at the Canadian border; it's a major cross-country, north-south route, one of the longest in the US. Planned in the 1950s, it follows the general route of older, at-grade (ground level) highways.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

State officials learned of the cemetery in late 1981 when three tombstones and a family marker were found in the back room of a liquor store that was being demolished to make room for the widening of I-75 and the addition of a loop from Cleveland Avenue onto the interstate southbound. Until then, a cemetery had been suspected but there was no evidence.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The fact that the headstones were found in a locked room in the basement of the liquor store/motel, and that the store had used parts of the cemetery for parking, and with reports that the liquor store felt the cemetery's location hurt their business is all very telling in terms of what befell the cemetery in the 1950s.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Descendants of the those buried in Gilbert, many of whom still live in the area, had seen the gradual destruction of the cemetery, with it being overgrown with weeds and surrounded by commercial development. As the roads bordering Gilbert were widened in the 1940s-1950s, parts of it were sliced off, with skeletons sometimes being exposed in the streets.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The descendants came together in confrontation with GDOT when the new work on the I-75 ramp was planned in 1980. They agreed that the predominantly black neighborhood in south-west Atlanta, and the cemetery, had been ignored or abused by 'outsiders' for years. The last burials at Gilbert took place in 1952 and the families had been powerless to protect it.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

As the work on the ramp was going to proceed and effectively be built on top of the cemetery site, the State of Georgia worked to create more of a 'ceremonial' site to appease the surviving relatives of the deceased.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

A total of fifty-three new 'markers' were placed within the encircling ramp. They would bear the names of those who were known to be there, but with no dates as there were no existing written records of burials. The state located descendants through newspaper advertisements and interviews with those in the area in an effort to learn of names to represent.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Out of the fifty-three markers, six are crosses, as the state wanted to give the site more of a realistic cemetery appearance. The four markers found in the basement of the liquor store were incorporated also, as can be seen in the previous photographs.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Two of the concrete replacement headstones are shown here (left and right), along with a cross marker (center) for one of the twelve pastors who are buried at Gilbert Cemetery.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The state erected a memorial obelisk with a small access path on the Cleveland Avenue grade, although the path doesn't descend below to the area with the markers. The obelisk has fifty-six names, engraved on two of four sides, of those who are known to be resting down the steep incline just past the landing.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

This is the front of the obelisk, facing Cleveland Avenue. The state had spent $12,000 in 1982 to have a seven-foot blue granite statue of Jesus sculpted and placed at the site, but many of the descendants felt that it was racially insulting to have a white Jesus placed at the cemetery, which had been created originally for slaves.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

This is the west face of the obelisk (top half). Some descendants were okay with the religious statue as they welcomed the symbolism...

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

...Others felt that state funds that had been used in this manner would perpetuate the problem of racism itself. Ultimately, a court ruled that the religious symbol could not be used on state property and the statue remains in storage. This is the west face of the obelisk (bottom half).

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The shot on the left shows Cleveland Avenue heading east. Gilbert Cemetery is across the street, where the small trees are located. On the right is another view of I-75 from the top area of the cemetery site.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

This is the top level of the cemetery at Cleveland Avenue, with the State of Georgia historical marker, the small path, I-75 and, sadly, some litter. The State of Georgia maintains the property and grounds.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

This view of the site shows the markers and the interstate ramp. Department of Transportation property is very often used as places for encampment by the large homeless population in the Atlanta area. Sites of marginalization brought together, both past and present, still persistent today.

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Cleveland Avenue heading west reveals the upper and lower Gilbert site, interstate ramp, and the I-75. South-west Atlanta is heading into another dramatic transformation as the Atlanta Beltline heads closer to completion; this area may be unrecognizable even five years from now (2021). The past is still here in one form or another: the way it is remembered is part of its legacy.

Main Sources

Atlanta History Center

City of Atlanta

The Atlanta Constitution

Perkerson Civic Association

 

Images and text copyright © Laurie Stevens except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.