Clay Cemetery

Documenting and preserving Clay Cemetery in Atlanta's Kirkwood community

History of Clay Cemetery

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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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