HAMILTON, Ga. (USA TODAY) - The chain-link fence slices through the Hamilton City Cemetery, splitting it into two clearly defined sections.
On one side are beautiful, grassy vistas with well-tended plots where rest some of the city's most esteemed citizens. On the other are hundreds of abandoned, overgrown graves, some thought to contain the remains of slaves. Many are unmarked; some are inaccessible in the thick undergrowth.
At first glance, that fence seems as defiant and forbidding as the "Whites Only" signs that once defined life in this city of 1,021 about 90 miles southwest of Atlanta. But the situation at the Hamilton City Cemetery, which was established in 1828, is not uncommon in cities and towns across the Southeast. The fence represents not so much the grip of the region's segregationist past as a disturbing dilemma in the nation's present:
Just who owns African-American history, whether the lost stories from a worn graveyard or the very events or poetic moments that have shaped this nation? Perhaps more troubling: Who wants it and will cultivate it for future generations?
It's a question that resonates as we leave a month swelling with African-American achievement - the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, the second inauguration of the nation's first black president - and usher in Black History Month.
Yet those hard-won gains toward a post-racial society for the living seem to fade amid the forgotten souls in places such as the
Hamilton City Cemetery.
The most unsettling thing about the neglected black cemetery in Hamilton is how little is known about these citizens who lived and died long ago. The very earliest graves, the ones buried deepest in the woods, are unmarked. The ones from the 20th century mostly have markers that include only a name and dates of birth and death:
Here lies E.T. Smith: 1876-1916. Over there is Sophronie Pitts: Aug. 1, 1855-Aug. 27, 1944. And back there rests W.C. Robinson: Oct. 11, 1852-Nov. 25, 1935. Records at the county courthouse reveal no details of their lives.
Andrea McNally, an amateur historian who's leading an effort to have the city or Harris County clean and maintain the "black side" of the cemetery, has been repeatedly frustrated by the fact that no one here seems to know just who owns that part of the burial ground.
"Everyone I approached, when I asked about it, they said, 'Are you referring to the white or black cemetery?'" she says. "I went to the tax office, went to the deed office. Nobody knows who owns it."
Ownership is important because maintaining a cemetery is expensive. The dead lack a natural constituency to see that a site is properly maintained, say experts including Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a Columbia, S.C.-based, non-profit heritage group that works on cemetery preservation.
Georgia state law allows - but does not require - local governments to maintain abandoned cemeteries. Both county and city officials deny ownership.
"Counties frequently don't know who owns cemeteries," Trinkley says. "They had no reason to tax them, because they can't collect taxes off them, so they had no reason to keep up with ownership."
Local governments, he says, are extremely reluctant to assume the steep costs of providing perpetual care for a plot that generates no tax revenue. "Cemeteries are like any other historic resource," he says. "They have to have a constituency."
He says communities have resolved similar situations in different ways:
In Columbia, S.C., black state legislators got a one-time, $300,000 state grant to care for Randolph Cemetery, started in downtown Columbia in 1872 by a group of black legislators and businessmen. It was the city's first cemetery for African Americans but eventually fell into neglect.
Portsmouth, Va., is taking steps to consolidate four essentially abandoned African-American cemeteries - Mount Calvary, Mount Olive, Fisher's and Potter's Field - under city ownership. The cemeteries were begun between 1879 and 1894 and have been abandoned since at least the early 1960s.
Thomasville, Ga., takes care of both its white cemetery, the Old Cemetery, and its black one, Flipper Cemetery, "in a very equal, even-handed fashion," Trinkley says.
These neglected black cemeteries are most common in the Deep South but also are seen in other parts of the country. Mansfield, Texas, near Fort Worth, faces a situation nearly identical to Hamilton's: a fence separating a white cemetery near downtown from a black one containing the anonymous graves of former slaves. A black church there took over ownership of that cemetery.
In many instances, African-American cemeteries in the South were started by small associations of a dozen or so black community leaders around the turn of the century. As those people died off, and as 6 million black people moved North during the Great Migration of 1910-70, ownership of the cemeteries became muddled, Trinkley says.
Hidden from view
No one seems to know whether that's what happened in Hamilton.
Many long-time residents of Hamilton were unaware that the cemetery was even there until the recent death of Annie B. Copeland, a 96-year-old African-American woman who wanted to be buried there.
"I've been here seven years, and I'd never heard of it," says Hamilton City Councilman Alvin Howard, one of the city's first black council members of the modern era. "I called the city manager, and had him meet me at the cemetery. He said, 'Mr. Howard, I'll be honest with you. We've just neglected it.' I said, 'I can't hold you at fault for what's happened in the past, but what we do from this day forward, we will all be held accountable.'"
The "white side" of the cemetery is owned and maintained by the Hamilton Cemetery Association, says Nancy McMichael, the Harris County clerk and assistant county manager. "I don't think anybody really knows who owns the African-American side," she says. "We had an attorney tell us that the county owns it, but the county has no holdings out there, per se."
She says the Hamilton Cemetery Association is believed to have erected the fence about 50 years ago. Don Newberry, president of the association, declined to be interviewed.
Hamilton Mayor Rebecca Chambers says the city tried to clean the front part of the cemetery when she became mayor nine years ago. "When we found out what we had there, we tried to find out who owns it," she says. "We have been able to clean part of it. But from 1828 to now, trees have grown up that are huge. We don't want to disturb ground that we don't know what's there."
McNally, 47, who is white, says she started trying to get the cemetery cleaned up after she and her 12-year-old son, Patrick, saw it in September. "I started asking, 'Why isn't it being taken care of, just like the other side?'"
McNally, who works as a site operations manager for a national printer company, has spent months trying to learn who owns the cemetery and working to get it cleaned. She says she approached the city's largest black church, but many churches here have their own cemeteries.
She says she believes it's important to learn who is buried here and to document as much information as possible about them.
One of those buried here is Mack Miller, who was born in September 1886 and died Feb. 1, 1937. By standards of the day, he was a very wealthy man: At the time of his death, he owned a home in Hamilton, other property in LaGrange, a 117-acre farm in Kingsborough, and $1,000 he left to his mother, according to his will.
In the segregated 1950s and '60s, the "colored" park in Hamilton was Mack Miller Park. Hamilton native Robert Hixon, 56, believes it was named for Miller. That's difficult to confirm: The authoritative county history at the local library virtually ignores the contributions of black Hamiltonians.
What is known, from Miller's will, is that he hardly expected his final resting place to come to this: "It is my will and desire that my body be buried in a decent and Christian like manner," he stated in the very first item of the Jan. 3, 1936, document.
Appeal to veterans
Because many veterans' graves rest in the African-American section, McNally sought help from soldiers' groups.
The VFW post in nearby Cataula, Post 10558, took up her cause. And on the Saturday before Veterans Day, about 45 people, many of them combat veterans, cleared huge piles of brush, sawed down trees, pushed through undergrowth and cleaned debris off graves.
"They put out a flier for volunteers, saying they had a cemetery in the area that had been overgrown that had veterans buried there," says Sgt. 1st Class David Thomas, 29, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. "It's a pride thing, really. I just think it's important that we take care of our own."
Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Spear, project chairman for the post, says the group put American flags on all veterans graves - on both sides of the fence. "We've got veterans out here, laid to rest," he says.
That afternoon, the clusters of people digging through layers of neglect included just three African Americans in a county with about 6,000 blacks. There were no city officials, no county officials, no one from any of the local black churches.
Whitley Culverson, 64, one of the black people present, remembers when the city had "Colored Only" and "White Only" water fountains.
"I wish our young people were out here," he says. "There's a lot of history out here. I think Martin Luther King is rolling over in his grave."
It's unclear what's going to happen with the Hamilton City Cemetery.
McNally is trying to get the matter heard by a circuit judge to determine ownership. If a judge determines that either the city or county owns the property, that entity would be responsible for maintenance.
Rachel Black, Georgia's deputy state archaeologist, says that, "If the cemetery's lucky, a historical society comes forward or a family group will form an organization that will provide perpetual care."
If that doesn't happen, how do these situations end?
"Sometimes they don't," she says. "They just keep going."