Ray Mock has known for more than 20 years there were unmarked graves on property that is now Chastain Park in Buckhead, but little else was known about the site and those buried in it until now.
Thursday and Friday, Mock, the Chastain Park Conservancy’s director of operations, and Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services used ground-penetrating radar equipment to find 84 unmarked graves in a portion of the park’s North Fulton Golf Course, behind the green of hole No. 5 and adjacent to No. 6 along Lake Forrest Drive. The area, with graves marked by orange flags, is only “a couple of hundred square feet,” Mock said.
The graves are likely those of poor residents who lived in alms houses that occupied the park property starting in 1909. One, for white residents, is now The Galloway School. The other, for blacks, is now the Chastain Arts Center.
“We have maps from the ’20s and ’30s showing this cemetery,” Mock said.
The graves are also mentioned in Henry Hope’s book, “The Poor Houses,” which documents the histories of Atlanta’s alms houses.
The cemetery mapping project cost $4,000 and was paid for mostly by conservancy board member Paul Beckham. The rest of it was paid for by donations from Chattahoochee Nature Center Executive Director Chris Nelson and Atlanta City Council members Yolanda Adrean and Howard Shook and Michael Julian Bond, through their offices’ discretionary funds.
Mock, who started working on the project in March, said the reason it was delayed for so long is the 10-year-old conservancy had bigger ones to tackle list first. The nonprofit is also in the middle of a $5.3 million capital campaign as part of its mission to maintain and improve the park.
“It’s overdue, frankly. It’s way overdue,” he said. “We should have investigated it further. It takes so much time. Who are these people and why are they buried here? It tells the story very succinctly, and we want to recognize them. It’s an open meadow and potter’s field. We want to have some sort of marker recognizing the cemetery itself but not disturbing it.
“We will have the documentation. With the results of the survey, we’re going to have a map of the graveyard and where the graves are. For the archives’ sake, this survey would be worth it. Then we can go back and are simultaneously investigating this story. Was it black alms house or the white alms house or both? We’re in the middle of that research now.”
The conservancy plans to install a plaque at the cemetery site to identify and memorialize it. The organization also hopes to identify each person buried there, talk to their relatives about them and document their story. It is working with the coalition and Buckhead Heritage Society Executive Director Erica Danylchak to do so.
“We're interested in protecting them and we’re delighted to help with it,” coalition President Sam Massell said.
So far, the conservancy has identified one of the people buried, Mock said, but as of Sunday he could not find the document with the person’s name.
“We have four death certificates from the occupants of the alms houses, three black people and one white person,” he said.
But Danylchak, who said the society’s role in the project was mainly to assist in researching the cemetery and to recommend the conservancy use Omega to map out the site, has the name.
“We had a volunteer, who prefers to not be identified publicly, who found a name of a person who was buried there from one of the alms houses, dated 1922,” she said Tuesday. “It’s L.H. Evans, a white male, who was 70 years old.”
Danylchak said the cemetery project will “bring more attention to the history of the alms houses at Chastain Park.”
“There’s a really interesting history there with the buildings that are now there, Galloway and the Chastain Arts Center,” she said. “This is just another piece to the puzzle and will be brought to a wider audience with the [work] Ray has [done] and with [media] reports like yours.”
Mock said the conservancy one day wants to share with the public the tales of those buried there.
“The research could go on forever, but we do want to have the story straight before we tell the story,” he said. “So I would like for it to be [sometime] this year.”
In other news, Danylchak said the society is currently working on its master interpretive plan, and will reveal the initial concepts for those installations at the Taste of Buckhead Business in September. They will be installed at different venues around Buckhead.