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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Clay Cemetery Conventional Gravestones

Gravestones are doorways opening to the past and those that lived there. Through them we learn who was before us, when they came and when they crossed into the next life, the symbols that had particular significance to them, and often what they and their people believed about life and death. The cold stones warm as they tell about mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, the beloved and missed of a time gone by and the world they lived in along with their strong belief in a place they were going to when they departed.

Clay Cemetery’s conventional gravestones are almost all marble, with only one or two reflecting the historically later use of granite. Alternative materials include two homemade gravestones of box cast concrete with the names written by fingertip while still wet and another more formally cast in cement with embossed lettering and decoration (commonly used as temporary markers by African American funeral homes, this one from a nearby Stocks Funeral Home). Oral history from the 1930’s reports wooden markers for Jesse and Green Clay. The smallest gravestones are single box pieces 6-8 inches high while the two largest are near 8 feet tall and composed of as many as 12 parts. Many styles of gravestones are represented including simple tablets, obelisks, pulpit markers, bedsteads, and complex die, base, and cap grave markers.

Symbols and images on Clay Cemetery gravestones reflect a great deal of how the Clay Family and other Kirkwood residents felt about religion, the afterlife, and the departed. Their documented Baptist faith is repeatedly illustrated by open bibles, biblical robes, gates opening to heaven, and crosses. The great variety of carved plant life illustrates both the deep feelings held about the deceased and faith based plant symbology. Clay Cemetery’s garden of stone contains rose, tulip, Easter palm, fern, oak leaf, magnolia, maple, ivy, and daisies… all accented by hearts, fraternal symbols, and carved verses speaking to love for the departed and a sure knowledge of their eternal life. These feelings and beliefs are deeply articulated in the gravestone verses for Claudia Elise Wood and her newborn son Earnest Howard Wood, who died within hours of each other
 after his birth:

“Mother”
A ray of sunshine she ever
 was
Though saddened with 
worldly cares
She’s gone to the mighty maker above
Who shares all our toils
 and cares.

“Son”
A flower plucked from our 
midst
As it were by God’s omnipotent
 hand
To grace the mighty throne
 on high
Of the new Jerusalem.

Clay Cemetery’s conventional gravestones also illustrate the economic and social path of the Clay Family, Kirkwood, and Atlanta in DeKalb County during the 19th and early 20th centuries from the earliest settlers clearing and farming the land, to their land rich and upper 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. These changes are represented by a shift in markers from long gone wooden materials, to simple tablet stones, to expensive and complex Victorian and Edwardian gravestones followed by a return to simpler forms ultimately replaced from economic necessity by homemade cement gravestones. The cemetery’s history accurately illustrates the economic and social path of Kirkwood and Atlanta in DeKalb during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Gravestones are part of the growing evidence that Clay Cemetery evolved from a pioneer family cemetery to become a white upper middle class neighborhood cemetery, later becoming a cemetery defined more by income than geography during the depression.

 

#221: Florina Clay

#221: Florina Clay

#223: Cleveland Clay

#223: Cleveland Clay

#223: Cleveland Clay (Full)

#223: Cleveland Clay (Full)

#225: Talmadge Clay

#225: Talmadge Clay

#233: Margaret Hammond Dunn

#233: Margaret Hammond Dunn

#233: Roof and Four Pillars

#233: Roof and Four Pillars

#236: Matilda Hammond

#236: Matilda Hammond

#241: Tom Hammond

#241: Tom Hammond

#242: Lila Lee Marston

#242: Lila Lee Marston

#248: Maggie Belle Felton (Front)

#248: Maggie Belle Felton (Front)

#259: Clay (Reverse side)

#259: Clay (Reverse side)

#259: Willie Smith

#259: Willie Smith

#261: John W Clay

#261: John W Clay