The dead do tell tales.
And we can piece together some of these from studying records of African Americans buried in the historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. Combining information from the gravestones in this 9-acre cemetery and facts from the Georgia Secretary of State’s online death certificates from 1919 through 1927, gives clues to the lives and deaths of 236 of the African Americans buried at Gospel Pilgrim. We can make some generalizations to the entire Athens area black population from this information.

   Much of the laborious work obtaining images of the death certificates and preparing a spreadsheet of the main facts was excellently done by Kenneth R. Taylor of Athens,  a college history instructor.

   First, a bit about Gospel Pilgrim.

   The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also on the Georgia Historical Sites sponsored by the Georgia Historical Society. It is an important site, for not only history of African Americans in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, but for cultural, educational and touristic information.  It is overseen by the East Athens Development Corp., Inc., a part of the city-county government.  It’s located at Fourth and Bray Streets, next to Springfield Baptist Church in East Athens.

   I am head of the history and research committee for Gospel Pilgrim.

   The cemetery was founded by the Gospel Pilgrim Society, a fraternal, burial and insurance society, chartered in 1883. The Society began in the days of Reconstruction after the Civil War to help struggling ex-slaves adjust to freedom.

   Athens newspaper articles indicate the Society was operating from as early as 1873 or 1879, although it didn’t get into the cemetery business until 1882, when it bought the land in East Athens. The Gospel Pilgrim Society received its charter from Clarke County Superior Court in 1883.  It made available a beautiful burial ground for African Americans, along with cheap burial insurance and low-priced grave plots. Society members took care of members and others in need. Many poor people were also buried free of charge at Gospel Pilgrim.  Archeologists estimate that as many as 3,000-3,500 graves are in the cemetery. It also includes the graves of many of the most important leaders in Athens’ black community in the 19th and 20th centuries.

   Our most recent spreadsheet lists about 850 identified gravesites. The majority of graves, however,  are not marked, or their tombstones haven’t been found. The records of Gospel Pilgrim were lost years ago, so we have no maps or lists of burial lots and the individuals buried there. Active use of Gospel Pilgrim ended in 1977 upon the death of the last head of the Society, Alfred Richardson Hill. A few burials still take place if descendants can prove they own a lot and wish to use it.  They must get permission from EADC.

   Grave identification has been made by volunteer  ground surveys. A GPS survey was started a few years ago, but unfortunately never completed because it ran out of money.

   The cemetery isn’t endowed with perpetual care, and keeping it accessible is a constant fight against encroaching underbrush and trees. Volunteers have done some cleaning, and Athens-Clarke County residents passed a special sales tax election, with Gospel  Pilgrim getting funds to improve roadways and other infra-structure. None of this money can go toward repairing tombstones, since they are on private property.  Volunteer help is erratic, and in some years was more active than at present.

   Several organizations have made small grants to the upkeep of the cemetery, but there wasn’t enough funding to finance more improvements.  About one-fourth of Gospel Pilgrim has never been cleared. This area contains many graves not reachable because of the very thick  underbrush.

   Two-hundred-sixty-two identified graves mark the resting places of persons who were buried in Gospel Pilgrim between 1919 and 1927. The Georgia online Death Certificates program (see http://cdm.sos.state.ga.us/cdm4/gadeaths.php) shows 236 burials took place in Gospel Pilgrim. It would be expected that this would dovetail closely with the total number of identifiable graves for persons buried in Gospel Pilgrim from 1919 through 1927.  But strangely this isn’t the case.  Only 10 of the 236 in the death certificate file are among those identified for that period in Gospel Pilgrim.  This seems to indicate the vast majority of the 236 who died between 1919 and 1927 were interred in graves which were never marked or in graves where we cannot find any markers.

   The online death certificates give us such information as approximate date of birth, date of death, name of the deceased, names of mother and father, where the person was born, his or her occupation, and the cause of death. Unfortunately, the attending doctors’ statements as to cause of death were illegible in 15 cases. These death certificates may be very helpful in tracing family history. For periods later than 1919-1927, official copies of death certificates are available for a fee from the the Georgia Department of Public Health. Information is at http://www.health.state.ga.us/programs/vitalrecords/death.asp

   Blacks who died and were buried in Gospel Pilgrim generally had menial occupations. Common laborers headed the type of employment, making up 21.2 per cent of those with occupations. Cooks made up 17 per cent of the total, Those doing housework for others accounted for 11.0 per cent; and farmers totaled 4.7 per cent. These four occupations made up 53.9 per cent of those employed. Other job classifications had less than this high-occupation group.

   Only five of the dead African Americans had been teachers. Only two were ministers.  Thus we can see that the vast majority of blacks in Athens-Clarke County worked at hard, ill-paying jobs with little standing.

   What were the major causes of death among those African Americans in the Death Index between 1919 and 1927?  Heart and stroke cases accounted for 15.8 per cent of the deaths; tuberculosis and kidney disease  each caused 11.8 per cent of the deaths. Pneumonia was next, causing 9 per cent of the deaths. These categories accounted for nearly half of all the deaths of African Americans buried in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery.

   During the period, five of those to be buried in Gospel Pilgrim were murdered. “One of the most horrible and gruesome crimes ever recorded in the county” was how an Athens paper described one of these killings. The murder occurred when Mary Bennett, a 70-year-old widow, was the victim on Aug. 8, 1922,  of a ferocious axe attack by her 45-year-old son who lived with her. He supposedly was trying to find her money. He was sentenced to 50 years in the state penitentiary, convicted on  strong circumstantial evidence. The Athens Banner used a Page 1 banner headline about the crime.

   Mary Bennett lies somewhere in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in one of the many unidentified graves.

   A Web site is under construction for the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, which will contain a spreadsheet of burials and other information.  Several old Gospel Pilgrim websites can be found under “Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery” on Google or other search engines if you want more information now. If you want to find out about relatives buried in Gospel Pilgrim, please contact the EADC at 410 Mckinley Dr., #101,  Athens, GA 30601 or phone EADC at (706) 208-0048. Their email address is http://www.eadcinc.com/. Also you can contact me at my Website, http://www.alhesterauthor.com/.

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This leaning monument shows work to be done in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, Athens, GA
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Neglected roadway in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, Athens, GA.

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