For Decatur resident Laurel Wilson, Decatur Cemetery—located at 229 Bell Street—is not just a place to honor and bury the dead; it’s also a fountainhead of city history, a snapshot of the past as well as what she calls a place of study.
Wilson is scheduled to receive her master’s degree in heritage preservation in May 2017 from Georgia State University. The majority of her coursework has involved researching the inhabitants and their living ancestors of Section 6 of the cemetery, which was designated as burial sites for Decatur’s Black population.
“Just as in life, in death, people were segregated,” Wilson said. “We only remember people for as long as they survive, mostly in our collective conscious, or by a gravestone.
Unfortunately, in older cemeteries, you have a lot of abandoned graves—families move on. When a headstone falls, it can be buried in the dirt, carried off or shattered into pieces.
We can forget people are even there. In Section 6, there are a lot of places that are just green—you would have no idea that hundreds of people are buried there—and you’re walking right over their graves.”
A few years ago, Wilson received an English degree from Agnes Scott College but found herself working an unsatisfying job. On a whim, she visited Decatur’s Cemetery’s 58-acre space one summer afternoon and decided to research a name from a random gravestone.
“I’ve been doing genealogy for about 20 years now,” Wilson said. “I started by researching my own family and have done a few of my friends also. I love the research into the Census and birth records and things like that. It’s like solving a mystery.”
Wilson’s research began by finding out basic information about the subject: where he worked, when he died and other details. She submitted her research to Friends of Decatur Cemetery, a nonprofit organization responsible for tours, gardening and other public outreach programs.
A member, pleased with Wislon’s research, told her about Section 6—an area of the cemetery that has been lost to neglect, vandalism and the elements—and encouraged her to continue her research. Around the same time, Wilson was considering pursuing a master’s degree in historical preservation. A short while later, the two projects intersected and a dive into hundreds of individual histories began.
“We have discovered there are more than 900 people buried in Section 6,” Wilson said. “We originally thought there were 200 or so.”
According to Wilson, her capstone project for her degree will be a documentary titled Five Generations: From Slavery to Public Service in Atlanta, which will focus on Section 6 inhabitant Sally Durham.
“She was probably owned by the Lumpkin family; Wilson Lumpkin was the governor of Georgia during the Trail of Tears,” Wilson said. “Word is that Sally was given to Wilson Lumpkin’s son; he fell in love with her, and they had two children. I found records of her in Athens in 1870 working and then married to another man in Decatur in 1874. Word is that Lumpkin wanted to take Sally up North to get married and she got married to free herself of the situation.”
Wilson’s research has shown Durham became a prominent caterer. Durham’s descendants also became prominent figures in Atlanta neighborhoods, the Old 4th Ward neighborhood, foster homes and education.
Wilson’s research into other families also led to stories of grave robbing, a father dying of tuberculosis before his son and many others. She said the task of discovering the histories of each individual buried in Section 6 is a project that will last beyond her lifetime.
“These are heroes,” Wilson said. “These are people who had to overcome insane obstacles and still kept going. They served their community. They worked very hard inside and outside their community to make a better life for themselves and to change things. I want their stories to be known. I want to put them back into our collective conscious and memories.”
Wilson said she hopes giving personalities, names and histories to people buried in Section 6 will help deter vandalism.
“To me, the people buried in Section 6 are friends,” Wilson said. “They are people that we value, people whose lives we cherish. When you start looking at it that way–when inhabitants of the cemetery are familiar to you–it’s less scary and it becomes more inviting. This is someone’s mother, this is someone’s grandmother. They meant something to someone and that value doesn’t go away when we don’t know who their descendants are.”
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