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Slaves' Graves? Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

In Newnan, Georgia, a scenic former mill town, plans to lay walking trails on a forgotten piece of city-owned land were halted when Newnan native Bobby Olmstead informed officials of an oral tradition that the site was an old cemetery. "It's been called a slave cemetery since I was a boy," notes Newnan's landscape architect, Mike Furbish. A solitary child's headstone marked "1869" survives above ground.

A 1928 copy of a missing 1828 map designates the spot "negro graveyard." Contract archaeologist Steve Webb was called in, and probe analysis revealed 243 burials oriented roughly east to west, traditional of Christian burial, and grouped in clusters, perhaps reflecting family ties. Ellen Ehrenhard, director of the local historical society, speculates that the burial ground was long out of use by 1895, when it became pasture land.

Was it really a slave cemetery? "We haven't gotten far enough, in my mind, to say," notes Webb. The map is not an ideal source, being redrawn from a lost one made 100 years earlier. Oral history may prove to be the best source, and interviews with elders in the African-American community are planned. "What's so puzzling is that no one has come forward, but they will," says Ehrenhard. "People don't talk about slavery in this community; it's still a sore spot."

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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