This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit
Balancing Cultural Considerations and Preservation Priorities at a Historic African American Cemetery by Dr. D. L. Henderson
Presenter: Good Morning, everyone. Good morning, everyone!
Audience: Good Morning
Presenter: Thank you. You have just participated in a cultural performance that’s referred to as a call and response. The speaker makes a comment or poses a question and the audience responds. The audiences’ response can be ritualized or improvisational. This particular form of cultural communication has African origins. Enslaved Africans who survived the middle passage, from Africa, brought this oral form to the Americas and the practice survives today in religion, music, literature, and performance art of Africa America.
Identifying cultural practices and understanding the origin and significance of those practices is a prerequisite to undertaking any form of cultural preservation. Too often important cultural elements can be overlooked or discounted as unimportant. When preservation is likely knowledge and experience to identify and balance cultural considerations with preservation priorities. This presentation details a case study that illustrates the challenge in balancing cultural considerations against the realities of preservation planning and funding at an African American cemetery.
The South View Cemetery Association was founded in 1886 by formerly enslaved African Americans as an alternative burial ground that was a respectable place for Christian burials in segregated Atlanta. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, African American for profit corporations in the US. Today, South View is approximate 100 acres and has more than 70,000 interments. South View is a working cemetery and handles approximately 450 burials annually. This area at South View is comprised of 15 acres of non perpetual care sections in the oldest part of the cemetery.
The historic South View preservation foundation was organized in 2004 as a non-profit
organization. Our mission is to increase community awareness and support for the preservation and restoration of historic South Vie; recording, interpreting, storing, and preserving its art, history and environment.
With the assistance of consultants from the Chicora Foundation we now have a preservation plan and a stone by stone assessment to guide and implement our preservation efforts. With the services of an ISA certified arborist from [inaudible 00:02:40] we have developed a landscape management plan. We conduct guided walking tours of the historic area that highlight our history and our preservation needs. We celebrate the founding of the cemetery on Turner day in April. We’re partners with the Atlanta preservation society and other local preservation organizations. And we engage community residents and family members with special events such as our Veterans Day services in November. We have developed an education guide for teachers and students, a cultural treasure hunt that encourages visitors to independently explore South View’s landscape and a monuments memory game that tests player’s ability to recognize South View’s funerary symbols and art.
South View’s landscape follows a style of Victorian Era cemeteries. Historic non perpetual care section of South View has a terraced garden landscape with traditional 19th and early 20th century Victorian monuments. However, elements of African American culture, such as the numerous custom stone funeral home markers give the historic fabric of South View’s landscape a unique character.
I use Carl Sawyer’s definition of a cultural landscape: “the cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agents, the natural are the medium, the cultural landscape is the result.”
You can see the walled plots and terracing at South View in this photo.
This monument contains a number of Victorian era symbols and paternal ordering insignia.
A metro of Atlanta area cottage industry for grave stones has provided temporary markers to African American funeral homes in Atlanta for generations. These are just a few of the African American funeral homes represented at South View. These grave stones have been produced since the 19120s, first by a local craftsman and later by other members of his family. Consequently, these particular markers can be found only in a relatively small geographic area with approximately a 45 mile radius of Atlanta. Unlike their contemporary counterparts provided by funeral homes today, typically a metal holder with a paper insert, these stone funeral home markers represent distinctive appearance and style that is readily recognizable wherever they’re found. In Alison Duncan’s presentation yesterday you saw some of these stones in a Cemetery in Gordon County, Georgia. Gordon County is approximately 45 miles from Atlanta.
The stones vary somewhat in design and construction but are typically cast in advance. They customize as needed with the addition of molded plaster cast. The arts which are required for the creation of these markers is evidenced in their singular style and construction . We’ll look at it in more detail in just a moment.
Preservation efforts are currently underway at South View, including plans for the repairing and setting of stones throughout the historic grounds. As recommended by the secretary of interior standards for the treatment of historic properties with guidelines of the treatment of cultural landscapes. However, the treatment plan for the repair of the funeral home markers presents issues both cultural and economic, that challenge the application of common preservation methods and approaches.
Here’s some other variations in design.
These markers would have also had plaster insets with a plate of glass covering them. The inscription and glass front have not survived.
Originally, these stones were of little cost, intended to be temporary. They represented a service to families and a business marketing tool for the funeral homes to temporarily display the funeral home named cemetery visitors. However, by today’s cultural standards these stones are priceless. While many markers are intact or only slightly deteriorated, many more are in need of repair. Some have been considered to deteriorated to restore. In almost all cases at South View these temporary funeral home markers are the only markers identifying grave sites. To lose the markers to total deterioration would be a great historic loss, yet the high estimated cost to repair these fragile stones has defied a quick resolution to the decision to preserve or repair or restore.
What was temporary and actually intended to deteriorate has now become cultural artifact. What was conceived as a marketing tool has now become historic documentation. What was created primarily for practical and economic reasons has now become artwork. I purposely do not refer to this artwork as folk or vernacular because those are judgmental terms that imply that there are categories of high and low art.
This is the great marker of Elder Bailey made by Elder Bailey. It was Bailey, a plasterer by profession, who began making the funeral home markers for African American funeral homes in Atlanta in the 19020s.
Bailey is pictured here in 1986, the year before his death, in front of his home where he built his sculpture garden. Notice the large earns, one behind Bailey and another to the right in the rear of the photo. The earn on on the right is perhaps the one that was moved to his grave site at South View.
Bailey sculpted other non whitewashed pieces such as this one entitled “Beware.” It depicts
Eve with a snake wrapped around her waist giving a “come hither” look to an off screen Adam.
This one is titled “Count Down.”
This one is titles “Ecumenical.”
And this one is “My Children’s.”
In addition to the funeral home markers Bailey also produced customer markers such as this one for W. M. Baker. Originally he etched inscriptions using a roofing nail. Later, he carved wooden alphabet forms and pressed the letters into the wet cement or plaster.
This cross was designed for James A. Giles and shows Bailey’s distinct lettering. Rebecca Baker’s marker to the right features a detailed floral design.
The flower pot in the upper corner stands upon the grave of Bailey’s cousin Catherine Fernando. The books in the lower right corner may represent the “Book of Life” or the “Bible” or another religious work. But before the civil war it was illegal for African Americans in Georgia, whether enslaved of free, to learn to read. After emancipation, learning to read became a priority for many African Americans and books were symbols of their new found freedom and literacy.
This stone represents the condition of a large number of funeral home markers at South View. The majority of the markers, requiring intervention have fallen are broken or have missing fragments. The recommended treatment involves basic repair techniques but this is complicated by the diversity of the stones designs which were revealed upon closer inspection of the markers.
According to Bailey’s nephew, Richard Ford, who continues to make a newer design of these markers today, all the funeral home markers were whitewashed in the same fashion as the sculptures in Bailey’s yard. The concrete background of this marker would have been white as well. The visual impact of the whitewashed stones thought the cemetery landscape would indeed be quite dramatic, but it is doubtful that the stones retain their finish for very long upon being placed on the grave. What Bailey’s nephew refers to as a secret formula used to make the mixture, the whitewash on recently made markers can be rubbed off with a finger. Reapplying and maintaining the whitewashed appearance of the stones would require an additional maintenance effort that the foundation in all likelihood would not be able to maintain.
These markers were designed to be temporary. Or were they? You can see that this marker is reinforced by iron rods.
A close up view of the same marker shows that the plaster tablet was not just affixed to the surface of the concrete background as in other cases. Instead, the plaster tablet was fitted into a recessed slot in the concrete. It is possible that Bailey changed his design in an attempt increase the longevity of his markers. South View family’s whose markers are still intact treasure them.
The foundation board has discussed various options for dealing with the preservation of funeral home markers. Repair, as I’ve just shown you, reconstruction by Bailey’s nephews who still make newer versions of these markers, replacement with an alternate marker or a text-replacement marker, or retention of the markers in their current condition.
Various issues are involved with each of these options. For repair, there’s the immediate cost and the cost of future maintenance. The markers were designed to be temporary and they’re guaranteed to fail.
Reconstruction may not be feasible as the original molds and letter forms that they had
used have not yet been located and the durability of the work produced by the current family members may be an issue.
Replacing the markers with another product would result in the loss of historic character. Text replacement markers would introduce numerous additional markers in the landscape and dramatically alter its appearance.
To retain the markers without intervention would result in their ultimate and no doubt complete deterioration over the long term. Also, note that intervention is not recommended for all of these markers because they are either aimed to be, begun repair or could be further damaged by treating them.
Our preservation priorities at South View are based upon our mission. To record and interpret intentionally] the task to restore and preserve. This does not mean that we will not preserve our gravestones as funerary art, but preservationists typically focus on the preservation of objects and materials. However, the preservation of objects without their cultural context does not reveal what truly lies beneath the surface of the socially constructed landscapes where we bury our dead.
The loss of intangible characteristics that define an African American cultural landscape is the greater risk, and therefore, the greater priority. While not everything can be preserved or preserved indefinitely as many artifacts of the landscape were intended to deteriorate or have already been lost to time, we can ensure we collect and record the intangible culture through divisions and practices of the families of South View as our first priority. Gathering oral history from the community and documenting burials will preserve the memories of and members of those families and their community. Then, preserving the landscape so that it continues to reflect the purpose for which is was developed and the community character that it has acquired over the years and follows along with the conservation of objects in the landscape.
In an attempt to balance cultural considerations and preservation priorities we have proposed a phased approach for the treatment of the funeral home markers. The first phase of documentation and planning will ensure that the cultural context and significance of the markers is addressed as a priority. This saves also includes planning for a triage of marker repairs to be undertaken as funding becomes available. Final treatment decisions will occur within the phases. Preservation priorities and phase objectives will be assessed before the beginning of each phase and after the completion of each phase.
Phase 1 has already begun and you are among the participants. At South View we are in the process of cataloging and transcribing these markers. Documenting his construction techniques and sharing that information with others in the preservation community who can make use of this cultural information. My call is intended to make you aware of this artists and his legacy at historic South View and other active native American cemeteries. During the question and answer period, I look forward to your response.
This presentation details a case study in preservation treatment alternatives that illustrates the challenge of balancing cultural considerations against the realities of preservation planning and funding at an African American cemetery.
The South-View Cemetery Association was founded in 1886 by formerly enslaved African Americans as an alternative burial ground that was “a respectable place for Christian burials” in segregated Atlanta. Following the style of Victorian era cemeteries, the historic non-perpetual care section of South-View has a terraced garden landscape with traditional 19th century monuments replete with Victorian symbols, yet elements of African American culture—such as the numerous custom stone funeral home markers—give the historic fabric of South-View’s landscape a unique character.
A metro Atlanta area cottage industry for gravestones has provided temporary markers to African American funeral homes for generations. Unlike their contemporary counterparts, these stone markers represent a distinct appearance and style that is readily recognizable wherever they are found. The stones have been produced since the early 20th century by a single family—specifically for African American funeral homes in Atlanta. Consequently, these unique markers can be found only in a relatively small geographic area, within approximately a 45-mile radius of Atlanta. The stones vary somewhat in style and composition, but are typically cast in advance, then customized as needed with an additional molded plaster tablet. The artisanship required for the creation of these markers is evidenced in their singular style of construction.
Preservation efforts are underway at South-View, including the repair and resetting of stones throughout the historic grounds, as recommended by The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes. However, the treatment plan for the repair of the
funeral home markers presents issues, both cultural and economic, that challenge the application of common preservation methods and approaches. Originally, these stones were of little cost, intended to be temporary—they represented a service to families and a business marketing tool for the funeral homes to temporarily display the funeral home name to cemetery visitors. However, by today’s cultural standards, these stones are priceless. In almost all cases at South-View, these temporary funeral home markers are the only markers identifying the grave sites. To lose these markers would be a great historic loss, yet the high estimated cost to repair the fragile markers defied a quick resolution to the issue.
Founded in 2004, the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, endeavors to increase community awareness and support for the preservation and restoration of Historic South-View. This case study follows the analysis and decision making process of the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation —with illustrations of markers and treatment alternatives—as it formulated the plan to address the preservation of these historic markers in a cost effective manner, while maintaining the culturally unique character of this African American cemetery landscape.
Dr. D L Henderson is the executive director of the Historic South-View Preservation Foundation. A preservationist, genealogist, and educator, she conducts a popular series of cemetery and genealogy workshops and is a frequent speaker at local and national conferences. For many years, she has researched and written heritage tours on cemetery history and the art and architecture of Atlanta’s Oakland and South-View cemeteries. She also serves as a member of the advisory board of the Historic Oakland Foundation. At present, she is working on a book-length project documenting the cultural history of African American cemetery landscapes.