History Unearthed

New book walks visitors through Oakland Cemetery

Ren Davis 73C

It was close to midnight on a Sunday in late October 2009, just a few days shy of Halloween, and Render “Ren” Davis 73C and his wife, Helen Davis, were somewhere that many of us would make it a point not to be: standing at the gates of Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery.

Winding down their third-annual stint as role-playing volunteers during the cemetery’s Halloween Tours, the Davises were talking with Mary Woodlan, Oakland’s director of volunteers and special events, about the possibility of using Ren’s high-quality photos of the cemetery to produce a commemorative poster.

“Well, actually,” Woodlan said, “what we’d really like to have is a coffee-table book.”

It was an unlikely place and time for a book to be born, but that comment was all the encouragement the Davises needed. Coauthors of several popular regional guidebooks, the two are exceptionally well versed in blending history with tourism, and they shared a growing fondness for the 163-year-old cemetery. Creating a book about it seemed like a natural fit. 

Resting place: The Gothic-style Alfred Austell Mausoleum, located on Oakland's Original Six Acres, cost $16,000 to build in 1881—the most expensive structure in the cemetery at the time.

Ren Davis 73C

The resulting Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide recently received the 2013 Lilla M. Hawes Award from the Georgia Historical Society, given annually to the best book published the previous year on local Georgia history. The Davises also won the Author of the Year Award in the Specialty Book Category from the Georgia Writers Association. And David Moore, executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation, reports that the volume is “selling like the proverbial hotcakes” in the cemetery visitors’ center.

“It’s the best publication about this cemetery we have ever had,” says Moore, a longtime friend who has known Ren Davis since high school. “The content and photos create a context that helps people understand why they are here and appreciate the significance of this place.”

The Davises collaborated with Oakland experts including Moore and Woodlan; Libba Grace, chair of the foundation board; Kevin Kuharic, former director of restoration and landscapes; and Richard Waterhouse, a funerary-symbolism specialist and former Oakland volunteer, to gather information and turn it into content for the book.

“We took all the tours,” says Ren, a third-generation Atlanta native. “We came at every time of day, in every season”—including a shivery morning in March 2010 when he arrived at dawn to capture images of a rare snowfall.

Founded by the city on six acres in 1850, Oakland Cemetery is what historian Franklin Garrett (buried himself at Oakland) called “Atlanta’s most tangible link between past and present.” Now spread serenely over forty-eight acres in east Atlanta, the cemetery’s seventy thousand graves—nearly a third of them representing children, a reminder of days when a fever could ravish an entire family—provide a walking tour through history itself, from Atlanta’s railroad camp beginnings through the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the city’s twentieth-century explosion into the business capital of the South.

Notable figures buried at Oakland include Morris and Emmanuel Rich, founders of Rich’s Department Stores; Gone with the Wind writer Margaret Mitchell; and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African American mayor and one of twenty-seven mayors interred there. There are also dozens of Emory alumni and faculty, such as golfing legend Bobby Jones 29L and Abner Calhoun, the region’s first eye and ear specialist, who attended the School of Medicine’s predecessor in 1872 and has a room named in his honor at the Woodruff Health Sciences Library.

Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery is both history and guide book, beginning with the cemetery’s origins and background and then providing a map of its nine distinct sections—including the “Original Six Acres,” where Jackson is buried (not, notably, in what was previously the African American section); the somber and orderly Confederate Memorial Grounds, where nearly seven thousand soldiers rest under identical markers; the self-explanatory Jewish Flat and Jewish Hill; Potters’ Field, the 5.7-acre meadow set aside for those too poor to afford burial plots; and the largely unadorned African American Grounds, established for blacks who could afford to purchase lots.

You guides: Authors Ren and Helen Davis are donating 70 percent of book royalties to the Historic Oakland Foundation.

Kay Hinton

The book is rich in detail and description, briefly outlining the stories of hundreds of those buried in the cemetery—from the haughty to the humble—as well as the style and significance of many of the various markers, which range from ornate statues and mausoleums to the simplest of stones.

Most of the vivid, modern-day photographs were shot by Ren Davis, who made countless visits to Oakland to take advantage of opportunities such as the routine cleaning of the mausoleums, when he could go inside to photograph the stained glass. One such photo was taken inside the Winship Mausoleum, built for the prosperous manufacturing family whose descendant Robert Winship Woodruff made the $50,000 donation that started what is today Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute.

Although it was originally conceived by city leaders to be just a cemetery, as Oakland grew, it blossomed into a park-like recreation site that is today a partnership between Atlanta and the private Historic Oakland Foundation. The city maintains the grounds, while the foundation works to make the cemetery a destination for visitors.

And the Davises’ book has made a major contribution to that effort—not only by serving as a guide for the cemetery’s 45,000–plus annual visitors, but by 70 percent of its royalties being donated to the foundation.

“Yes, David owes me big time,” jokes Ren Davis, strolling through the cemetery with Helen and his old friend on a recent summer morning. “Whoever dies first is going to have to come back and haunt the other one. We’ll all be characters on the Halloween tour forever."

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