Historic Macon cemetery, once fenced off, gets overdue salute

A new historic marker stands inside a Macon cemetery established as a burial site for black residents in the 1800s.

The sign recognizes Oak Ridge Cemetery, a section of Rose Hill Cemetery where hundreds of slaves and freed blacks, paupers and Jews were once laid to rest. A ceremony was held Wednesday to unveil a Georgia Historical Society marker in the cemetery, situated just off Madison Street.

Plans for Oak Ridge began in the 1840s when slaveholders were seeking a place to bury their slaves. In 1851, Macon officials designated 10 acres as the final resting place for black people, said Jerrilyn Larkin, a researcher and advocate for the marker.

A wooden fence separated Oak Ridge from the rest of Rose Hill. There are records showing that more than 960 black residents were buried at Oak Ridge leading up to the Civil War.

Buried in Oak Ridge are many African-American luminaries, including educator H.J.T. Hudson, for whom Ballard-Hudson High School was named, and members of the Hutchings family, who helped found and run Hutchings Funeral home.

“This state marker dedication acknowledges the sometimes voiceless contributions of those who gave so much to the multicolored tapestry that makes Macon-Bibb County so great and diverse,” said Marvia Mitchell, a cemetery specialist for Macon-Bibb County. “Many graves no longer have headstones. ... All the people buried here were not slaves, but some were slave descendants.”

Nearly three decades after being designated a black cemetery, Oak Ridge also became a cemetery for the congregation of Temple Beth Israel.

Along with the new Oak Ridge historic marker, Rose Hill and Oak Ridge are benefiting from a grant given by the Community Foundation of Central Georgia.

The grant has been used for interpretive panels in Oak Ridge and also for exploring connecting the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail with Rose Hill, said Kim Campbell, a preservation and education coordinator for the Historic Macon Foundation.

Mapping Rose Hill

The Macon-Bibb County Commission has designated special sales tax revenue to map graves and open plots at Rose Hill, including in Oak Ridge, where hundreds of burial sites remain unmarked.

Two companies — Omega Mapping Services and Legacy Mark — presented to commissioners last year details about ground radar technology and software used for plotting gravesites.

On Tuesday, Omega owner Len Strozier spoke about how many Oak Ridge markers — often wooden crosses — were likely blown away during storms and then discarded by caretakers. He planted about a dozen small orange flags Wednesday showing where some of the unmarked burials were located.

“I’m honored here today to be recognizing the rich history of Macon, Georgia, that’s buried behind us,” he said.

Rose Hill is a place where where former Civil War soldiers, ex-mayors, governors and former Allman Brothers Band members Gregg and Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were laid to rest.

Stanley Dunlap: 478-744-4623, @stan_telegraph

The Georgia Historical Society marker reads:

Oak Ridge Cemetery was formally established in 1851 when the Macon City Council designated land in Rose Hill Cemetery specifically for African-American burials. As a municipal cemetery, burial records exist for Oak Ridge and document at least 960 burials of both enslaved and free people of color prior to the Civil War, many of which are now unmarked. A portion of the cemetery was sold in 1879 to serve as a burial place for the Temple Beth Israel congregation. The inclusion of “Strangers’ Row” for paupers in the 1890s illustrates a shift in interments. In the twentieth century, Oak Ridge provided burial space for Macon’s growing African-American business class. Individuals interred here include Hannibal Roe, “a free man of color,” buried in 1846 in a now-unmarked grave, and Professor H.J.T. Hudson, namesake of Ballard-Hudson High School.

Erected by the Georgia Historical Society, Historic Macon Foundation, and Macon-Bibb County