By John Schaffner
What was simply an overgrown and mostly forgotten piece of Buckhead’s history just six months ago, now proudly displays the heritage of a different time, due to the restoration work of the Buckhead Heritage Society, Buckhead Rotary Club, mortuary archaeologists and, most recently, Cub Scouts wielding rakes and scrub brushes.
When the Buckhead Heritage Society first decided to restore Harmony Grove Cemetery in April of this year, it was overgrown with thick layers of moss, ivy , kudzu and crumbled stones. Today, all that has been removed, 171 grave sites have been located—if not identified—and professionally mapped.
The cemetery, located at the corner of West Paces Ferry and Chatham roads, is said to be one of the most historically significant cemeteries in Atlanta.
Dr. James H. “Whispering” Smith, an 1800s landowner and slave holder in the Buckhead area, established the cemetery in 1870 to be used by family members. Upon Dr. Smith’s death in 1872, he left property in his will to his emancipated slaves to be used for education and worship purposes. This group of individuals established New Hope Church, an African Methodist Episcopal church that still stands on Arden Road and holds services some 135 years later.
Among the prominent individuals buried at Harmony Grove is John Sims, the father of former Atlanta Mayor, Walter A. Sims, who served from 1922-1926.
There are several Confederate Civil War veterans buried at the cemetery and the great grandparents of actress Julia Roberts are buried there as well. It appears the most recent burial at the cemetery took place in 1982.
The restoration project is spearheaded by Wright Mitchell, president of the Buckhead Historic Society, a relatively new charitable organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the historic nature of Buckhead.
“We’re a new group, so we decided we were going to do one project and do it well so we could raise awareness of our group,” Mitchell said back in April when the project was kicked off.
The first phase was removing some of the very heavy underbrush, fallen trees and such. That was completed in the early summer.
Now the Heritage Society has completed the second phase of the restoration, which involved locating unidentified graves.
To assist in this process, the society enlisted the services of Mortuary Archaeologists from New South Associates. Using a variety of techniques including surface feature analysis and below ground probing, the archaeologists documented 131 previously unidentified graves. This brings the total burials in the Cemetery to 171.
The archaeologists, Ms. Diana Valk and Ms. Melissa Umberger, generated a map of the burials and a chart identifying the distinguishing features of each burial. They also compiled a written report detailing their findings As a result of these efforts, Harmony Grove Cemetery has been officially registered with the state of Georgia as archaeological site 9FU357.
The two archaeologists first conducted a systematic investigation of the cemetery area on Oct. 3, 5 and 8 in order to identify and map the burials that could be identified from surface features, such as headstones and depressions in the ground. They then returned on Oct. 17 to conduct a systematic subsurface investigation to determine if any unmarked or hidden graves were present.
Gravestones within the cemetery consist of many formal stone grave markers made of marble or concrete. The oldest formal grave marker is in the western part of the cemetery and marks the grave of James I. Smith, who died in 1870.
Burial treatments in the cemetery varied widely from formal headstones to rough fieldstones. Edging is found around many of the burials, but most of the graves are unmarked or marked with undressed naturally shaped fieldstones. Some of these had both head and foot stones.
Several of the graves were identified through cigar-shaped depressions in the soil.
The subsurface testing, which identified 20 graves, was done by inserting a metal tipped probe into the soil and assessing soil density.
The archaeologists also found many artifacts including pottery, broken bottles and metal dishes in the southern portion of the cemetery. At the turn of the century, it was common for African-Americans to throw broken crockery, glassware, kitchen utensils and other kitchen articles on the graves of the deceased. This discovery leads further credence to the belief that “Whispering” Smith, the original owner of the land on which the cemetery now sits, may have allowed his slaves to bury their dead at Harmony Grove Cemetery before he deeded them the land on Arden Road in 1872 for their own worship and burial purposes.
At a minimum, the artifacts conclusively establish that the cemetery was segregated. The church and cemetery that Smith’s former slaves established (New Hope A.M.E. Church), still stands on Arden Road and has an active congregation. Some of the current parishioners are descendants of the original church members.
When the restoration project was first conceived, it was to have been completed in six months, was expected to be less work and less costly, but there is still a final stage to go
The third phase of the restoration, which will consist of various landscaping efforts is scheduled to begin shortly pending drought conditions.
That is why the Cub Scouts from Webelo II, Den 5, Pack 232 of Northwest Presbyterian Church were conducting a clean-up of the cemetery on the afternoon of Oct. 27. With the help of the West Paces Ferry ACE Hardware store owner Allen Dowson and manager Sheridan James, who provided rakes and other needed tools, the scouts, along with their fathers and den leaders, were preparing the site for fescue seeding and other plantings that are all part of phase three of the restoration project.
When it all is completed, Harmony Grove Cemetery, which rested in obscurity for decades in Buckhead, may become one of the community’s more popular historic sites for visitors.