AMONG THE TOMBSTONES in the African-American section
of the Oxford Historical Cemetery, assistant professor of anthropology
Mark Auslander surveys the trimmed grass, flowerbeds bursting
with gold and red mums, and floral arrangements placed on carefully
tended graves. The orderly landscape is far removed from the
wild thicket that covered the area a few years ago, making it
impossible to view or visit graves.
transformation, wrought by students, faculty, and community
volunteers, has uncovered not only century-old markers but,
says Auslander, the forgotten contributions of many who built
and supported the University with their lifes labors.
revealed the hidden history of the Universitya retelling
from the African-American perspective, says Auslander,
who gave a Great Teachers Lecture, Uncovering the Past
at Oxfords Segregated Cemetery, in October at the
Miller-Ward Alumni House. Everyone who built every building
at Emory, who worked there as chefs, as bricklayers, laundresses,
chauffeurs, . . . their history is here as well.
Auslanders sociology class toured the cemetery near the
Oxford College campus in the winter of 1999 as part of a lesson
on family rituals, they saw trees growing out of tombs and numerous
broken and buried headstones overgrown with briers.
their credit, the students were curious about why that section
was so poorly maintained and decided to look into it,
Auslander says. They soon became both fascinated and outraged.
class discovered that Oxfords only public cemetery had
been segregated for more than one hundred and fifty years, divided
into a white sectionthe final resting place
of many of the towns historical figures, including bishops
Young J. Allen and James Osgood Andrew, and Emory presidents
Atticus Haygood and Warren Candlerand a black
section, where African-American ministers, townspeople, and
slaves were buried.
private organization, the Oxford Historical Cemetery Foundation,
which received funds from the town, maintained the white side.
Oxford historian and mathematics professor emeritus Marshall
Elizer says the non-profit foundation, formed in 1965, consisted
of a handful of well-meaninglittle old ladies in
the community who raised money through bake sales and donations
and decided to clean up the part of the cemetery where their
relatives and ancestors were buried.
and others, however, believe deeply ingrained racism not only
created the cemeterys stark division but has helped to
maintain it. Oxford students decided to work to restore the
neglected area with the help of City Councilman J. P. Godfrey,
who returned to Oxford in 1995 after twenty-seven years in the
Air Force. His parents and grandparents graves were
among those that had become inaccessible.
class also did genealogical research and historical documentation,
combing over census and town records to determine the identities
and occupations of the hundreds of African Americans buried
there, many in unmarked graves.
the clean-up, the cemeterys oldest tombstone was uncovered.
It reads: Potter, a colored minister of the ME Church,
faithful, useful and respected. 1812-1851. Students also
discovered that Robert Hammond, the colleges head janitor
for many years, is buried in Oxford cemetery, as is stone mason
Israel Godfrey, grandfather of J. P. Godfrey Jr., who constructed
Day Chapel at Oxford College.
student Rebecca Weave researched census records from the late
1800s in the Newton County Public Library and the Oxford library,
and discovered the names of Israel Godfreys mother and
father. That was very fulfilling for me. I had discovered
something no one else had discovered and I had helped a family
trace their roots in the process, Weaver said. That
small piece of information was the key that was needed to unlock
several other answers.
Americans werent officially able to attend classes at
Emorys Atlanta or Oxford campuses until 1962, even though
their families may have worked at Emory for four or five generations.
Just as Emory eventually was integrated, so too was Oxfords
public cemeteryfor years, plots have been sold without
regard to race. And in July, the Oxford City Council and the
Oxford Historical Foundation reached an agreement that guarantees
perpetual care of all the graves.
cemetery work days continue, drawing a blend of students and
faculty, town leaders, Oxford Dean Dana K. Greene and her family,
visiting scholars, and white and black townspeople. Emorys
MARIAL center, where Auslander is a core faculty member, donated
flowers and a cedar tree, which were planted by Oxford College
freshmen in the northeast section.
past Easter, there were people here everywhere with flowers,
says Godfrey, motioning to the carefully tended and decorated
graves surrounding his own familys markers. Many
of the older women said it was the first time they could come
and visit the grave sites. It was a wonderful thing to see.M.J.L.
documentation, and student research stemming from the cemetery
project have resulted in several exhibitions, including Tragic
Beauty, which can be viewed on Emorys MARIAL Center
Web site (www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/MARIAL/exhibitions/cemetery/Titlep.html),
and A Dream Deferred: African Americans at Emory and Oxford
Colleges, 1836-1968, on display in Woodruff Librarys