Historic cemeteries are gaining greater recognition as resources whose landscapes contain the lives and stories of a community’s history, and who provide a tangible connection between the past and present. In 2007, the Georgia Historic Preservation Division received funding from the National Park Service’s Preserve America Program to study, document, and help preserve important cemeteries in Georgia. New South Associates was selected by the City of Washington to complete the largest and most complicated of these grant-funded projects – the documentation of Washington’s African-American Old School Cemetery. Never formally deeded to a church or cemetery, the Old School Cemetery appears to have been used as an informal African-American burying ground since at least the late 1800s.
New South Associates was tasked with identifying unmarked graves in the cemetery, completing a survey of the cemetery showing all burial locations and features, making a record of each burial, and preparing a report with recommendations for the future management of the site as well as avenues for its public interpretation. Unmarked burial locations were discovered using tile probes. All burial locations were mapped with a Topcon total station that also recorded slope contours and the locations of trees, grave markers, plot boundaries, and other landscape features. Information on the features of each burial, including markers, inscriptions, plantings, and grave offerings, was recorded on Tablet PC computers in a Microsoft Access cemetery database developed by New South Associates. New South Associates held two community open houses to share information about the cemetery and record its oral history. New South Associates also volunteered its time to work with members of Boy Scout Troup 32 in cleaning a section of the cemetery and its markers.
This project documented 1,738 burials and produced a report that identified African-American burial customs at the cemetery, provided preservation recommendations, and outlined interpretative programs. The Old School Cemetery was shown to be a very significant African-American resource and the project has been touted as a successful catalyst for reinvigorating the community’s awareness of its cemeteries. New South Associates’ staff were also filmed and interviewed for a documentary on Georgia’s historic cemeteries prepared by Georgia Public Broadcasting. Finally, New South Associates’ report is featured on the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office’s website as a good example of how to investigate and document an historic cemetery.