Many of the burials in Historic Oakland Cemetery’s African-American section never had traditional markers. The three-acre section resembles an open field, peppered with trees, shrubs and gravestones here and there.
Families without means placed wooden markers or objects that belonged to the deceased, like toys or other objects. Sometimes they planted rose bushes or other plants.
And this is why Neale Nickels, Oakland’s director of preservation, is crouched over an azalea bush with a thick stem.
“There’s a really good chance that this shrub was actually a marker, one that survived. I mean, that’s gotta have some age to it, don’t you think?”
To be clear, Nickels is no plant expert.
But one thing’s for sure now. There is a grave here, marked by a small, orange flag.
Oakland recently hired a company to scan its African-American section’s three acres with ground-penetrating radar. They found 872 unmarked burials.
This figure doesn’t surprise Nickels.
“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we found out there were burials here that were unaccounted for,” he says.
The only way to find out is to match the burials they’ve found with old records, which is the next step. And, Nickels says: They’ve got their work cut out.
“Well, you know, just this morning, actually, I was trying to look at the old paper records, and see if I could find original maps that would have shown the burial plots for this section, and I can’t find them! We’re going to have to track that information down, and that’s really going to be the most difficult part of this.”
Especially considering that the oldest graves in Oakland’s African-American section date back to the 1860s.
He hopes people will one day use their findings for genealogy research. Oakland is also restoring old walkways in the African-American section, as part of its overall cemetery restoration.