Tiny south DeKalb cemeteries hold roots of regional history

Although the founding church is no longer active, the Panthersville Cemetery is in perpetual care through a trust fund.

On the busy stretch of Candler/Flat Shoals Road between I-20 and I-285, there are a mall, restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, motels, offices—and a cemetery, actually, two cemeteries.

Although Panthersville Cemetery and the White Family Cemetery are adjacent to one another and total approximately 265 graves between them, they are two separate cemeteries, according to an online article on the White Family Cemetery.

“The White Family Cemetery joins the Panthersville Presbyterian Church Cemetery just to the right [if one is facing south], through a thin line of trees,” the article states, adding, “There is a sign for ‘The White Family Cemetery’ at the far end of the cemetery.” Recently, a sign was erected marking the Panthersville Cemetery and a fence was erected that roughly separates the two burial grounds.

Panthersville, which apparently was once a recognized community with several organizations bearing its name, today survives only as a 3.7-square-mile census designated place, where the most prominent feature is the Gallery at South DeKalb mall.

The White Family Cemetery, though adjacent to the Panthersville Cemetery, is a separate burial ground.
The White Family Cemetery, though adjacent to the Panthersville Cemetery, is a separate burial ground.

Both cemeteries were established in the 19th century and most burials were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though there are ones as recent as 2012. The Panthersville Cemetery, like many of its time, was associated with a church. Panthersville Presbyterian Church, which was approximately two blocks away from the cemetery on Flat Shoals Road, officially dissolved at the end of 1989 and the cemetery was placed in perpetual care through a trust fund.

There are burials in the side-by-side cemeteries that predate the Civil War. One of the more readable older markers is for the grave of John McDaniel, who died in 1839. Although this grave is listed on the White Family Cemetery registry, it is next to the fence on the Panthersville side.

“The marker actually was placed there some time in the mid-20th century,” explained Sue McDaniel Spencer, great-granddaughter of John McDaniel, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. Her older sister, the late Willie Ruth McDaniel, placed the marker, possibly when she was teaching at Agnes Scott College, because the original ones marking family graves had become unreadable.

Cemetery records show the three graves near that of John McDaniel as “unmarked,” but McDaniel family members say they believe those graves belong to other family members who lived in the 19th century. According to family documents, John McDaniel was married and the father of 12 children.

“You’ll notice that all those graves are covered with heavy rock slabs,” said Spencer, who at 94 is the lone survivor among nine siblings. “That’s because large cats once roamed freely through the area. That’s why the area is called Panthersville. The slabs were to keep the animals from digging up graves.” The term “panther” is sometimes used to refer to a number of large wild cats, including cougars, lynx, bobcats and mountain lions.

The McDaniel family, according to Sue Spencer’s youngest son Robert Spencer, figures prominently into Georgia and Alabama history. Rob Spencer, who holds a master’s degree in library information studies and has spent years researching his family, said that one or more of John McDaniel’s descendants founded Bowdon College in Bowdon, Ga., the state’s fifth chartered institution of higher education and its first coeducational institution. The college opened in 1857 and closed its doors in 1936.

Charles Ambrose McDaniel, John McDaniel’s grandson, was the first president of Bowdon College. He, along with 124 of the college’s 144 students, perished in the Civil War. According to a historic marker at the site of the former college, before it closed its doors, “the college that was founded in the wilderness” educated students who went on to become educators, doctors, lawyers, journalists, judges, bankers, farmers, industrialists, governors, and senators.

Family legend says John McDaniel was also related to 19th century Georgia Gov. Henry McDaniel, but family records do not document this claim. “I do know that Alabama’s Governor Bibb was a distant relative of Ruth Smith McDaniel, my material grandmother,” Robert Spencer said. The first and second governors of Alabama were brothers William Wyatt Bibb and Thomas Bibb.

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