Clay Cemetery

Documenting and preserving Clay Cemetery in Atlanta's Kirkwood community

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Clay Cemetery, the Clay Family and Kirkwood Baptist Church

Though not a church cemetery as such, Clay Cemetery and the Clay Family are intimately associated historically and geographically with what became the Kirkwood Baptist Church. Originally “Bush Arbor” or “Beech Springs” church, it evolved informally from services first held in a bush arbor near a spring, possibly in today’s Gilliam Park.

Beech Springs Church was formally founded in 1873 on Clay Street by Cleveland & Nancy Clay, Jesse Clay Sr., Newt Williams, Peter Hughes, and D.V. Stephens. Services were first held in Cleveland and Nancy Clay’s home, then in a vacant house, and then a small church built in 1873. These were all on Clay Street in Kirkwood, one street east of Clay Cemetery.

Official Register

Official Register

The third building was erected in 1886 after a donation of land and $500 by J.B. Wade. It was located at the S.E. quadrant of today’s Hosea Williams Drive and Clay Street on a 150′ by 75′ parcel with the long side facing Hosea Williams Drive.

Jesse Clay remained active in the church until his death. Cleveland Clay was active in Kirkwood Baptist Church until at least 1891 and served as a “Messenger” to the Stone Mountain Association of Baptist Churches in 1886, 1889, and 1891.

The church had 34 members in 1888 and met two Sundays monthly. By 1893 there were 55 members and a 57 member Sunday school and within a year the Sunday school had grown to 75 participants. The church was renamed “Kirkwood Baptist Church” in 1894 and the building was subsequently moved to Howard Street N.E. and Hardee (today’s Delano Drive) in 1895. Growth continued and in 1897 the congregation numbered 88 and met every Sunday.

Internal dissension became pronounced from 1898-1900 and the church subsequently dissolved, becoming an arm of the First Baptist Church until Kirkwood Baptist Church was reconstituted in 1902, when it absorbed Murray Hill Church and one to two smaller congregations. The church’s seating capacity in reached 275 by 1913.


Clay Family Home Church  Kirkwood Baptist Church, 1913 Howard Street N.E. & Hardee (Delano)

Clay Family Home Church
Kirkwood Baptist Church, 1913
Howard Street N.E. & Hardee (Delano)

The congregation’s fourth building was today’s Pentecostal Church of God at 110 Howard Street N.E. Their fifth and final Kirkwood building became today’s Israel Baptist Church at 2071 Hosea Williams Drive. After Kirkwood Baptist Church’s congregation joined the white flight from Kirkwood in 1966 it was renamed Rainbow Baptist Church in 1969 to reflect the new location on Rainbow Drive in adjacent Decatur, Georgia.

Kirkwood Baptist Church

Kirkwood Baptist Church


Kirkwood Baptist Church

Kirkwood Baptist Church

(Research and writing by Earl Williamson, 2013.)

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History of Clay Cemetery

As with many Southern farms and plantations the Clays had their own burial ground, which became known as the “Clay Cemetery” or “Clay Burial Ground”, now Kirkwood’s oldest intact historical site. Four generations of Kirkwood’s Clay family remain at rest here in the Clay Cemetery. Graves include those of Jesse Clay and his sons Greenberry (or Green Berry) and Cleveland (a Civil War veteran) along with their wives, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Jesse Clay Jr.’s wife Susannah was buried here 60 years after he fell during the Battle of Vicksburg, where he remains in a marked soldier’s grave. Will D. Clay was buried here in 1914 after he fell two stories while working on a building on Butler Street and his son W.D. followed him to rest in the cemetery in 1922. Kirkwood and area families represented in the Clay Cemetery include the Clays, Feltons, Dunns, Hammonds, Marstons, Orrs, and Parkers.

The Clay Cemetery contains 42 traditional gravestones, at least 21 unconventionally marked graves, and well over 24 unmarked graves. Conventional gravestones are marble, while alternative materials include box cast concrete, unusually colored granite stones, and hand laid mortar less markers including brick. Of the more than 86 graves at least 18 are children, a reflection of the many fatal childhood diseases which are now protected against by immunizations. Gravestone dates range from 1860 to 1936.

The cemetery evolved from a family burial ground in the mid 1800’s to become a white upper middle class neighborhood cemetery in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It later became a burial ground for economically stressed and increasingly fragmented white families during the collapse of the Southern economy in the 1920’sand the Great Depression that followed in the 1930’s. These changes are represented by a shift in markers from plain tablet stones to expensive Victorian and Edwardian gravestones to the homemade cement gravestones and rock markers of very low income burial practices. The cemetery’s history accurately illustrates the economic and social trajectory of Kirkwood and Atlanta in DeKalb during the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Evidence suggests that Clay Cemetery became an integrated burial ground well before the area’s shift in racial demographics during the 1960’s. Oral history from the Clay family reports African American burials in the back of the cemetery beginning in the 1950‘s. This would make this cemetery a very rare and possibly unique example of integrated burials occurring much earlier than elsewhere in the South (court ordered in the early 1970’s). Three unconventionally marked graves are consistent with West African burial practices. Many others are marked similarly to older rural black burials. One cast cement marker is a type commonly used as temporary marker by African American funeral homes and originated from a nearby African American funeral provider. Oral histories from neighbors and the Clay family report activity in the cemetery into the 1970’s, well after Clay family use of the cemetery had ended and after Kirkwood had become predominantly African American. Interestingly, the Clay Cemetery may have been integrated long before Kirkwood’s schools were.

Clay Cemetery is intimately tied to Kirkwood’s entire history from the times of it’s very first settlers onward. It is 300 feet from “Wade’s Place Hollow” (possibly Gilliam Park), the location of a spring serving first Indians, then pioneers, then Clay family settlers. The first Clay buried here had been at rest for four years when a Union artillery battery of Walker’s Corps began firing from next to the cemetery during the Battle of Atlanta, which began less than 1/2 mile away and spread throughout the area. More than a half dozen State of Georgia historical markers in the immediate area document that battle. Clay Cemetery is 400 feet from the original Atlanta to Decatur trolley line right of way (c.1870). It is 1/4 mile from the early 20th Century industrial architecture of the N.P. Pratt Laboratory (c.1914), the Pullman Railcar Company yard (c.1922), and is surrounded by Kirkwood’s diverse residential architecture and greenspaces.

The Clay Cemetery is the only historical site remaining intact in Kirkwood that represents area settlers and the Civil War period and is one of the very few such sites remaining relatively untouched in Atlanta east of Boulevard Drive. The cemetery clearly demonstrates the evolution of Kirkwood from the earliest settlers clearing and farming the land, to their land rich and upper middle class children, followed by comfortably middle class children and grandchildren, to the generation of grandchildren and great grandchildren devastated and set adrift by the Great Depression. Strangers came to rest here in eternity as Clay Cemetery’s post Depression role became one of burial ground for the unmarked and undocumented poor of both races culminating with integrated burials that preceded others in the South by roughly 20+ years.

(Research and writing by Earl Williamson, 2013.)

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History of the land belonging to the Clay family

Jesse Clay Sr. (1786-1871) emigrated from Monticello, Jasper County, Georgia in 1826 with his wife, three sons, and daughter to settle in DeKalb County. He purchased Land Lots 206 and 207 of the 15th District, DeKalb County, from Taylor & Watts of Jasper County that year and made the final payment by traveling to South Carolina and back by horseback. He and his family initially lived on the property in a tent and drew water from a spring at Wade’s Place Hollow (thought to be today’s Gilliam Park). They cleared the native hardwood forest and farmed the land until Jesse’s death in 1871.

The approximately 250 acres originated from Cherokee Indian tribal lands distributed to Henry Britton of Clarke County on 11/4/1823 following the 1821 Land Lottery. The property passed to Taylor & Watts of Jasper County, Georgia and then to Jesse Clay Sr. His son Greenberry (1820-1886) owned a large parcel adjoining to the southeast (including today’s Kirkwood Urban Forest Park) which was operated as a dairy farm.

It is thought that Jesse Clay Sr. financed purchase of the land through the sale of 10 slaves (six male and four female) which show in the 1820 Federal Census of his family, no slave ownership being recorded for him in the subsequent 1830 Federal Census.

Around the time of Jesse Sr.’s death in 1871 his holdings were subdivided into parcels averaging 10-11 acres each. Son Cleveland (1836-1909), a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, inherited much of the land and the family was active in many land transactions throughout the 1800’s. Another son, Joseph Clay (1817- ?), purchased Lot 9 of 10 acres for $220.00 at Jesse Clay’s estate sale, a parcel which included Clay Cemetery.

The Clay lands subsequently became the western third of the incorporated City of Kirkwood (1892-1926) and were bordered to the south by today’s Memorial Drive and to the north by the curve of Gilliam Park. The eastern two thirds of Kirkwood evolved from lands owned by the Kirkpatrick and Dunwoody families, a combination of which produced the name “Kirkwood”.

The majority of Clay land was further subdivided into residential parcels during sales to the Atlanta Suburban Land Company in 1892 with the family retaining the Clay home at Boulevard Dekalb (now Hosea Williams Drive) between Clay and Wyman Streets at approximately the S.W. corner of today’s Hosea Williams and Clifton, Clay Cemetery, and other parcels including Cleveland Clay’s home on Clay Street.

Two title searches and a survey have failed to identify a title or deed to Clay Cemetery. It appears to exist “by exclusion”, meaning it has retained parcel identity through repeated exclusion from neighboring parcels and deeds as well as being identified across time on multiple subdivision plats as separate from other parcels.

(Research and writing by Earl Williamson, 2013.)