The solitary headstone of 3-month-old Charlie Burch was the only visible evidence hinting at a burial ground for more than 200 slaves hidden beneath a poison ivy-covered field on a hill in Newnan, Ga.
And it might have stayed that way if a group of African-American women and a society that takes its name from a Confederate Army hero hadn’t united to save the site when local officials proposed putting a recreational path through the field.
Prompted by the groups and encouraged by residents’ memories of the burial ground, archaeologists and researchers moved in and now believe the site is the largest known slave cemetery in the South. Shaded by trees, the hill in a residential district is now dotted with surveying markers and 249 orange flags identifying the likely locations of bodies buried in the field. “A lot people have always known about it,” says Ellen Ehrenhard, an archaeologist and director of the local historical society. But she said it took the city’s plan to build a network of walking trails, including one that would have passed through the cemetery field, to galvanize the groups to action. City officials have now shelved the plans.
“We want the young people here to grow up with a sense of pride in their community and in their culture, be they black or white,” said Diane Webb.
Webb is a member of the Order of Robert E. Lee, the ladies’ auxiliary group of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Southern heritage organization that holds that Confederate leaders fought to preserve “liberty and freedom” in the Civil War.
They are working with a local African-American women’s heritage group, and other organizations to preserve the site
“We’re all here together. We’re one community,” Webb stressed.
Cotton Boom Boosted Population During the 19th century, Newnan’s population was roughly 50 percent black, as the booming cotton trade increased the demand for labor. An 1828 map shows the burial grounds were adjacent to property owned by slaveowner Andrew Berry.
The grounds most likely became a cemetery for slaves working in houses and businesses, Ehrenhard believes. The graves are arranged in clusters, perhaps indicating family groups.
Bob Olmstead, a local resident who has long believed the site was a slave cemetery, led the push to preserve the site.
“There has been no black history in Newnan until now,” said Olmstead, who is white.
Olmstead hopes the site will eventually become one of the 72,000 sites listed with the National Register, and preserved as a piece of Southern history.
Slaves were commonly buried in simple pine boxes or shrouds on the plantations of their owners, said Josh Rothman, a history professor at the University of Alabama. They were often identified only by wooden markers or stones, and careful records were seldom kept.
In 1991, some 420 skeletons of slaves were found in New York City, the largest such cemetery known.
Archaeologists at the University of Tuscaloosa have agreed to exhume two graves at the Newnan cemetery and perform DNA tests to determine the origins of the remains.
Alan Wang of ABCNEWS affiliate WSB in Atlanta contributed to this report.