There remain mysteries in and around Buckhead, little nooks and crannies whose stories remain untold.
We pass them daily and give not an iota of thought. I think about the empty corner lot covered in ivy or the knee-high stone wall that has been there seemingly since time began, or a peculiar house set way back from the street that seems out of place but has been there forever.
Even those who dig for those stories find many dead ends. The people who know are long gone. The “whys” have faded from our collective memories.
Those puzzles are most noticeable in the small cemeteries dotting our community. There are names on the markers and usually some title that ties the land back to someone, somewhere. We can build out the history, but it takes some doing.
The hillside cemetery on Arden Road is especially curious. Unlike some of the others, the church across the street, New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church, is active. The families in the cemetery were members of that congregation, which dates back more than 150 years.
In an abandoned cemetery, it is acceptable to explore, study and report. It is a different story for an active cemetery, especially for a black church in the heart of Argonne Forest, a mostly white neighborhood.
The relationship between neighborhood and church has always been a good one as far as I know. Neighbors attend the fall open house and services, and several houses of worship come together with New Hope to break bread and build the community.
That cemetery, however, has remained a mystery to those of us not involved with the church. On a few occasions, I have walked it, going down to the bottom of the hill to learn what I could just by looking. But I wouldn’t know where to start or for what to look in attempting to tell its story.
That’s where Buckhead Heritage Society and the Massey Charitable Trust stepped in. In early March, about 80 supporters gathered at New Hope to hear a presentation by Matt Matternes, senior mortuary archaeologist and principal investigator with New South Associates. Thanks to a grant from the trust, Matternes and his colleagues have spent the last several months (pre-COVID-19) documenting the cemetery.
The discoveries, so far, have been astounding. Their team identified more than 330 gravesites in the 1.86-acre cemetery but said there are likely more. Matternes went into great detail about the types of markers, many created by Eldren Bailey, an African-American gravedigger who offered the precast markers as part of a funeral package in the early to mid-1900s.
They found examples of folk headstones as well. One featured a red car taillight embedded in concrete. Families used marble slabs that had been tables as headstones. A piece of metal rail serves as another marker, likely denoting the deceased had worked for the railroads.
The property on which the cemetery sits belonged to Clark Howell, an early Buckhead settler who owned a ton of land. James “Whispering” Smith acquired the lots around present-day West Paces Ferry Road including Arden Road from Howell.
When Smith died in 1872, he left “two small portions heretofore given off, one of one acre for a schoolhouse and the other for a church of colored persons of two acres.” The area was known as New Hope Camp Ground, where freed slaves gathered annually for a few days of worship in the late 1800s.
Congregants founded the church in 1869, three years before Smith donated the land for a church and school. The first known burial in the cemetery took place in 1889. However, Matternes cited speculation burials may well have preceded that date and the cemetery may hold the remains of slaves. Both Howell and Smith owned slaves.
While that mystery remains, Matternes and Buckhead Heritage have shed an incredible amount of light on one of the more important historical and cultural sites in Buckhead.
The next steps, with proper funding, are to continue the intensive historical research and use ground-penetrating radar to determine how many individuals are buried in New Hope cemetery more accurately. From there, we can begin to figure out the best way to tell their stories.