Where there were once more than 50 gravestones now rests just 40. Where there were once people visiting the dead there are now the living sleeping in tents. 

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, located off Cleveland Avenue next to the southbound exit to I-75, is a shell of what it once was. 

On land donated to the city of East Point for the express purpose of burial places for Blacks, the cemetery has seen better days. 

The tents, three in total on the rainy afternoon of Feb. 13, have trash outside of them resembling cans on the curbs of a subdivision on the eve of trash pickup day. These trash bags and discarded remnants of fast food containers will not be picked up. 

They will remain, adding to the rest of the litter that has been strewn along the one-acre patch of land.

There are memorials that are more memorialized

Gilbert Memorial Cemetery doesn’t get many visitors these days and one can understand why that is the case. 

To get to the cemetery you have to get on the off-ramp and immediately pull over onto the grass median. Not particularly safe on a highway with the amount of traffic Interstate 75 generates during the day, visitors will have to walk through grass, and in the case of this particular day, mud, to get to the cemetery. 

A four-foot fence that was either near completion or more likely never planned to be completed in the first place sits around the graves. A short walk alleviates the need to hop the fence. There isn’t a sign that lets you know you’re on hallowed ground. 

One would have to have seen the obelisk and historical marker back on Cleveland Avenue near the northbound exit to learn more about the site. 

The monument has the names of those who were originally buried there and the names of the churches they worshipped in the area. The land, donated to the city by the cemetery’s namesake, Jeremiah S. Gilbert in 1861, was specifically for burials of members of the “Black community” according to the historical marker. 

The second paragraph of the marker reads as follows: “This memorial is dedicated to the memory of those individuals, known and unknown, here interred.”

A number of pastors at nearby churches participated in celebrating funerals and burials there and their names are also on the marker along with the names of the churches, some of which still stand today, they worshipped out of. 

Along with its designation as a Georgia Historic Site, Gilbert Memorial Cemetery is a piece of Black History. 

A slice of old Atlanta that for whatever reasons has been ignored in regards to how other sacred sites of both war, the Fort Morris Historic Site in Midway (Liberty County), and peace, Wormsloe State Historic Site in Savannah (Chatham County), has been immaculately kept up in appearance and as a part of this state’s history. 

If these and other historic sites have been taken care of then why has Gilbert Memorial Cemetery been ignored? The answer may be because it is owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation. 

Fix it and forget it

In 1983 there was a plan to build the Cleveland Avenue I-75 exchange and thus a need for construction. The land was purchased for the project, including the land where a local liquor store stood. 

Behind that store was Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, long forgotten, weeds grown over the gravestones of people like Shafter Prater, the Rev. E.M. Lyons, Annie Green, Jessie Green, Georgia Robinson, Charlie Mack Johnson, and Walter Coffee. 

The surveyors didn’t have an idea they would find a cemetery there but that is exactly what they found. 

An Executive Order to protect landmarks like Gilbert Memorial Cemetery wouldn’t be signed into law until  Feb. 11, 1994, under then-President William J. Clinton, but all involved knew something had to be done. 

The idea that a seven-foot statue of Jesus Christ be erected in place of the cemetery not only angered many locals but triggered a federal lawsuit that ultimately saved the cemetery and helped garner the status it has today. 

On Saturday, the ground surrounding the burial site was wet from two days worth of rain and the fallen leaves from the trees didn’t make it easier to move around. There are no lights or aisle markers at Gilbert Memorial Cemetery. 

The gravestones would be extremely difficult to read at night. Admittedly they were difficult to read at noon on a cloudy day. 

The Georgia Department of Transportation is the property owner and, even though they have a lot more priorities on their daily to-do list than the maintenance of a Black cemetery south of Atlanta (see the stretch of I-75 snaking its way through Cobb County that forever feels like it’s under construction), the Gilbert Memorial Cemetery could use a little love. 

The Georgia Department of Transportation website has a Special Projects tab and at the top of the list is the ongoing construction of the I-16/I-75 interchange (Pleasant Hill mitigation). The project goal is to improve the safety of the corridor by widening sections of that highway in Macon. 

The next couple of projects involved sections of a busy interchange between I-16 and I-95. Other projects are scheduled for Rome, Cartersville, Savannah, and SR 20 and I-575 in Cumming and improvements on US 441 from the Madison bypass in Morgan County to nearby Watkinsville. 

The cemetery off Cleveland Avenue falls very low on the list of priorities when it comes to improvements.

The same could be said for safety precautions with a number of homeless encampments on the grounds. If there are family members or members of the public that want to visit the site it wouldn’t be safe for them to do so with proximity being so close to an off-ramp. There isn’t a sidewalk or a walkway on the site either.

An email of inquiry on the cemetery maintenance schedule was sent to the Department of Transportation in anticipation of this story going to press. 

A Google search for the names of people buried in Gilbert Memorial Cemetery turned up nothing. Same for a Facebook search for related family and friends.  

On Valentine’s Day, there were no balloons or flowers at the gravesites of Gilbert Memorial Cemetery.

(Photo Credit: Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice)

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...

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