The chain-link fence slices through the Hamilton City Cemetery, splitting it into two clearly defined sections.
The graves on the south side of the fence at Hamilton City Cemetery in Hamilton, Ga., are overgrown with trees and bushes.(Photo: Michael A. Schwarz, USA TODAY)
On one side are beautiful, grassy vistas with well-tended plots where rest some of the city's most esteemed citizens. On the other are hundreds of abandoned, overgrown graves, some thought to contain the remains of slaves. Many are unmarked; some are inaccessible in the thick undergrowth.
At first glance, that fence seems as defiant and forbidding as the "Whites Only" signs that once defined life in this city of 1,021 about 90 miles southwest of Atlanta. But the situation at the Hamilton City Cemetery, which was established in 1828, is not uncommon in cities and towns across the Southeast. The fence represents not so much the grip of the region's segregationist past as a disturbing dilemma in the nation's present:
Just who owns African-American history, whether the lost stories from a worn graveyard or the very events or poetic moments that have shaped this nation? Perhaps more troubling: Who wants it and will cultivate it for future generations?
It's a question that resonates as we leave a month swelling with African-American achievement -- the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, the second inauguration of the nation's first black president -- and usher in Black History Month.
Yet those hard-won gains toward a post-racial society for the living seem to fade amid the forgotten souls in places such as the
Hamilton City Cemetery.
The most unsettling thing about the neglected black cemetery in Hamilton is how little is known about these citizens who lived and died long ago. The very earliest graves, the ones buried deepest in the woods, are unmarked. The ones from the 20th century mostly have markers that include only a name and dates of birth and death:
Here lies E.T. Smith: 1876-1916. Over there is Sophronie Pitts: Aug. 1, 1855-Aug. 27, 1944. And back there rests W.C. Robinson: Oct. 11, 1852-Nov. 25, 1935. Records at the county courthouse reveal no details of their lives.
Andrea McNally, an amateur historian who's leading an effort to have the city or Harris County clean and maintain the "black side" of the cemetery, has been repeatedly frustrated by the fact that no one here seems to know just who owns that part of the burial ground.
"Everyone I approached, when I asked about it, they said, 'Are you referring to the white or black cemetery?'" she says. "I went to the tax office, went to the deed office. Nobody knows who owns it."
Source: USA Today | Larry Copeland