This historic information was taken from Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: An African-American Historic Site by Al Hester, Ph.D. We are indebted to Dr. Hester for allowing us to share his scholarship with you.
Purchase and Establishment
The Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery was founded by Gospel Pilgrim Society in 1882 to help fulfill a need for a respected and beautiful place for African-American burials in the Athens, Georgia area. Prior to 1882, African-Americans were burried in cemeteries established by various black churches in and surrounding Athens, or in various small, private cemeteries. Some burials were also carried out in the Oconee Hill Cemetery on East Campus Drive, in an area not part of the “perpetual care” section of this, the largest Athens cemetery.
8.25 acres were originally purchased from the estate of William P. Talmadge, a well-off blacksmith, who owned much land around Athens. A .75 acre parcel was added in 1902.
Mrs. Talmadge signed the deed conveying the land to the Gospel Pilgrim Society for a “colored cemetery”. Green Bullock was listed on the deed as president of The Society. The purchase price, which is not very legible on the deed, appears to have been either $268.50 or $238.50. The additional .75 acres was purchased from George P. Brightwell.
So far, the earliest Burials appear to have been in 1885. Most of these involve the Monroe B. Morton family. The peak decade for Burials was from 1940 through 1949. Tombstones reveal that the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery remained a major burial place until the 1960s. Despite the lack of upkeep on the cemetery, a few Burials continue at Gospel Pilgrim, where access is still possible. The latest of these burials was that of Mrs Cleo Johnson on November 2, 2003.
Hard Times Turn Into Good
By the 1960s, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery was falling upon hard times as fewer burials took place. We can speculate that there was not much money to maintain it, and it had no “perpetual care.” Trees and undergrowth began to encroach more and more. Over the next several decades the cemetery became a dumping ground. A 1973 tornado hit the cemetery, toppling large trees and doing damage to some graves and walls.
In 1986 Michael Thurmond and other community leaders worked tirelessly to clean up the cemetery and to secure care for it. The Gospel Pilgrim Preservation Society, Inc. was formed and the City of Athens provided some help with by furnishing workers and trucks to carry off the trash. Howard Stroud headed the committee to clean up the cemetery.
In 2001, the EADC asked attorney Jim Warnes to do a Clarke County title search. He found no owner, and Gospel Pilgrim was declared an abandoned cemetery in 2002. Mr. Warnes also found a state law which allows local governments to use state funds to care for abandoned property without government units assuming ownership or responsibility for the property. This cleared the way for city-county help and enabled Athens-Clarke County through the EADC to apply to the Georgia Department of Labor for a grant to hire east Athens residents to restore and maintain Gospel Pilgrim.
In January 2002 a massive Martin Luther King, Jr. Day cleanup was organized at the cemetery. Over 30 tons of trash and debris was removed from the site. The clean-up rekindled community efforts to restore and preserve the site. A collaborative effort led by East Athens Development Corporation, Inc. started to secure funds for the restoration project and determine land ownership.
In November 2002 a grant from the Georgia Department of Labor was secured to begin revitalizing the cemetery. The stakeholders involved in this effort to date are: Citizens of Athens, families of the deceased, GA Department of Labor, Athens-Clarke County Government Corporation, and University of Georgia School of Environmental Design.
In January 2003 the groundbreaking ceremony marked the beginning of the restoration project with work continuing to this day.