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Atlantans share their familial connections to South-View Cemetery

“If you look at the threads of the history of Atlanta, they’re woven into that place.”

Story by Ann Hill Bond and Nikki Roberts, Lakewood Heights Fellow
November 17, 2023
Art by Khoa Tran
How we reported this story:

Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 Lakewood Heights residents about the journalism they needed. Several of those respondents requested to see more information and acknowledgment of the neighborhood’s history.

While reporting in Lakewood Heights, Canopy Atlanta’s inaugural Reporting Resident Ann Hill Bond wonders who will pass down community stories to ensure that future generations know the importance of the ground where we stand. Learn more about the Reporting Residency here.

Canopy Atlanta also pays and trains community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve the community. Nikki Roberts, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, is the author of this story.

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At a time in history when Black bodies weren’t valued in life or death, nine men united to fill a void for Atlantans, Georgians, and Americans. The resulting South-View Cemetery, which they founded in 1886, was among the first cemeteries in the U.S. to offer African Americans funerals with dignity.

South-View Cemetery is now a resting place and haven, a space for grace and joy, for over 90,000 people, including victims of Atlanta’s 1906 race massacre and some of the city’s innovators, civil rights icons, and community leaders, from Alonzo Herndon to John Wesley Dobbs and John Lewis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was originally buried at South-View, and his parents rest there today.

Photo by Nikki Roberts.

The legacy of South-View Cemetery is carried on in the families who chose these hallowed grounds as the eternal home for their loved ones who have gone on to glory. Lakewood Heights Fellow Nikki Roberts interviewed three descendants of people buried at South-View Cemetery and South-View Cemetery Association president Winifred Watts Hemphilll.

Richard Byrd

Richard Byrd is an 83-year-old retired public health advisor, whose grandmother, Fannie Powell, is buried at South-View Cemetery. He lives in the heart of Lakewood Heights, but he’s more familiar with the African American communities that once thrived in neighborhoods like Joyland and Thomasville Heights, where Powell met Byrd’s grandfather, John Powell.

Richard Byrd at his home in Lakewood Heights. Photo by Nikki Roberts.

There were two businessmen that were rivals. One was my granddaddy John Powell, and the other one is Mr. Blake; his family still owns property in that area. . . . My momma’s mother was a Hill. She was born in 1873, and her name is Fannie Powell. “Fannie Powell” is on the tombstone, but it was Fannie Hill Powell. I don’t know whether they were slaves or let free early, but a guy named Turner Hill—that would be my great-great-great grandfather—he had two sons that were Hills. . . . John Powell moved next door to my momma’s momma’s house. He ended up marrying Fannie Powell. . .

Now, South-View Cemetery, when I grew up, favored mostly sophisticated Black folks. They don’t like for me to say that, but that’s what they did. The Black community, like any other community, was divided because of class, and it was like that all along. At South-View Cemetery, most of the people that you find there are somebody that you know or are notable, so that tells you something. It’s crowded with people that you know.

Other highlights:

  • 20:14—Richard Byrd remembers when middle class residents initially protested the construction of Carver Homes: “They were public housing, and they didn’t want that over there.”
  • 21:11—Richard Byrd remembers how Joyland Park was created to host Black children in particular. “There was a fairgrounds, and they used to have a sign: ‘No n—-s and dogs allowed.’ My daddy didn’t like for me to go there.”

Lisa Alston

Lisa Alston is the daughter of Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Jean Childs Young, an influential educator and civil rights activist who played a significant role in advancing education and equality in the United States. Childs Young is buried at South-View Cemetery, though, for Alston, her mother isn’t the only loved one buried there: Before his body was relocated to the King Center, an uncle-like figure in her life—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—was first buried at one of South-View’s mausoleums.

Jean Childs Young and Andrew Young with Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter. Photo provided by Lisa Alston.

It was Uncle Martin and Aunt Coretta. We would go to their home for dinner. I remember that our families would meet at the Olive Street [YMCA] and go swimming. I didn’t see a whole lot of him, but he was Uncle Martin to me.

[When] my uncle Martin got killed. My mother called in a very close friend to come and stay with us—I was 10—and she ran to be with Aunt Coretta. That was my first death, so it was pretty traumatic for me.

What I remember most about the funeral was the march through the streets to the [Morehouse College] campus. People started really crowding in close, and I was very small. They literally lifted me up over the crowd and passed me over to the edge. My mother made her way to the edge of the crowd, but I was literally passed over the ground to not get trampled.

I believe my father went into depression for a while after that because he just didn’t know what to do next. It was shocking for the country. . . . Dorothy Cotton, who I called Aunt Dorothy, she took care of me when my father was kind of distracted.

The songs from the movement are very much a part of my very loving memories. I was on the Selma to Montgomery march, but I can’t say I remember a whole lot about it. I have somewhat of a memory of riding on Daddy’s shoulders. He would kind of run up and down the sides of the marchers, just trying to make sure that people were keeping pace and encouraging the singing. The singing was a very important part, whenever you march, just to kind of keep people’s spirits up. I do have a cherished picture of us at a rest stop. We’re just sitting on the grass and it’s my father and it’s Uncle Martin. I’m kind of lying on my daddy’s leg. It’s a cherished photograph.

Other highlights:

  • 9:48—Lisa Alston explains the lasting legacy of what became Atlanta Metropolitan State College, which Jean Childs Young helped establish
  • 16:51—Lisa Alston remembers the community organizing that her mother used to host, in their home: “We used to joke about her kitchen cabinet. . . . People would literally come to the house and sit around the kitchen table and plan all these things.”
  • 18:26—“My father was always gone. But at the same time for me, that was normal. My best friend was, and is Cheryl Lowery, who is the daughter of Joseph and Evelyn Lowery. Well, [Joseph] traveled all the time, too. I thought this was normal.”

Michael Julian Bond

When civil rights activist, politician, and academic Julian Bond died in 2015, his children remembered their father’s request to be buried at South-View Cemetery with other members of their family. Yet Julian’s wife, Pamela Sue Horowitz, had a different understanding of what her husband wanted for his funeral arrangements. Councilman Michael Julian Bond remembers how his siblings and their stepmother struck a compromise to carry out his father’s last wishes.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond. Photo by Nikki Roberts.

[My father] remarried, and when he passed, his second wife [Pamela Sue Horowitz] said that he wanted to be buried at sea. But he had not discussed that with any of the children. She had him cremated, and we went out on the Atlantic Ocean. She wanted to put his ashes in the ocean, so she brought us each a section of his remains. I gave her a little respect and poured some in there, but I think I kept probably 90 percent and so did my siblings. We made the decision that we would take a portion of the remains that we had, and we made sure that they were interned at South-View because that’s the only word that we had heard from him.

He loved Horatio Hornblower. As a teenager, he loved those books. He loved the water. He was on the swim team at Morehouse, one of the Tiger Sharks. They won championships. But he had never told any of us that [he wanted his ashes in the Atlantic]. So we said, “Hey, we’re gonna stick with what we know.” He did tell me directly what he wanted on his tombstone: “a Race Man who was easily amused.” You can’t do that if you’re buried at sea. So we wanted to make sure that the wishes that we were aware of were fulfilled.

You think about the kind of conversations people try to have about Oakland Cemetery and its historic leaning. It’s like, “Oh, this has gotta be our historic cemetery.” But South-View really is. . . . There are so many prominent people there that have, no doubt about it, impacted modern Atlanta, and it doesn’t get the kind of attention that it deserves. Both sides of my family have generations of people at South-View. Even though we’re here talking about my dad, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Ma’Ruby Johnson, was buried out there. She was 99 years old. If you look at the threads of the history of Atlanta, they’re woven into that place.

Other highlights:

  • 27:40—“One of the things that people don’t realize about my dad is that he was incredibly funny and very, very silly. And literally on his headstone, it says—and he said this is what he wanted—a “race man” who was “easily amused.”
  • 59:08— Michael Julian Bond remembers making the music compilation his father requested shortly before he passed. “I had actually put together about 30 CDs worth of music, from music collections and things. And I was hesitating on sending it to him.”

Winifred Watts Hemphill

In 1886, Winifred Watts Hemphill’s great-grandfather was one of nine men who co-founded Atlanta’s oldest Black-owned burial grounds, South-View Cemetery. Offering such dignity for the more than 90,000 people buried across the 100-acre cemetery is something I’m calling “death justice.”

Watts Hemphill didn’t plan on overseeing the cemetery’s burials and historic tours as she does today. Until 2003 she was practicing law, negotiating contracts on behalf of healthcare organizations. But when South-View’s previous president—and Watts Hemphill’s uncle—Albert H. Watts died in 2001, Watts Hemphill, who was already on the cemetery’s board, took over.

“It was the right place for me to be, even [if] you told me where I was going to be when I was in my 20s, I probably wouldn’t have been happy about it,” she says.

Photo provided by Winifred Hemphill.

There are over 90,000 souls buried here. To somebody, every one of those people is notable. People often ask, “Do you have a list of notables?” We don’t, and we don’t for a reason. My grandma is here. She’s notable to me, but probably nobody else remembers her but our family. I want every family to understand that their loved one is just as important as John Lewis, for instance, or Hank Aaron or the King family.

But one notable [thing] that really stands out is the burial of John Lewis. I knew Congressman Lewis; he was here for the burial of his wife several years before he passed. He and I worked on picking out her monument. The monument is to the two of them now, but he bought it, really, for her. One Sunday, he came with about 20 other people, and they sat in chairs out by the monument that had been recently erected for his wife. They just told stories about how they met—Xernona Clayton introduced them. They talked about the courtship and the pregnancy with their son—family stories. They shared. They laughed. They cried. They had the full range of emotions just telling stories about his life and her life together. And it was beautiful. That always seems true to me.

Several years later, he passed. The pageantry around his burial: The American flag out in front, the honor guard that was here practicing for days, Senator Warnock coming down and delivering the final rites. His family came in buses, three buses of his family, his nieces and nephews, because he’s from a large family. (He only had one son, but that wasn’t true about the rest of his siblings.) They came from Ebenezer [Baptist Church] on buses and they walked to the gravesite, and they all had on blue and white. The beauty of the day and then the comments from our families. We work here, and it’s a job . . . but to hear the community call and say, “Oh, we’re so proud that he came to our cemetery” . . . that was just very heartwarming.”

Other highlights:

  • 3:10—Wini Hemphill explains the decision made by the City of Atlanta to move the bodies of Black people buried at Oakland Cemetery’s Slave Square, which spurned the founding of South-View
  • 37:19—“We try to connect with those APS schools that have the person they’re named for buried here, because sometimes the new principal doesn’t even know why [the school] has that name.”

Editor: Christina Lee

Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso

Canopy Atlanta Reader: Heather Buckner

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