In the next two months, the city hopes to cut the ribbon on a "Resting Garden" currently under construction on the site of the first cemetery for black people in Columbus, City Manager Isaiah Hugley said.
The project, which is at Sixth Avenue and Sixth Street, will cost about $240,000, for fencing, minimal grading, plantings, benches and about 1,000 feet of crushed gravel pathways that wind through the mature hardwoods that shade the one-acre site.
"It's going to be a really, really nice place to go and meditate and to reminisce and remember those days in 1828 or 1834, when they designated it as the 'colored cemetery,'" Hugley said. "We are trying to preserve that piece of history."
The project will complement considerable work that has been done in the area of the site, Hugley said.
"It fits right in with the Sixth Avenue flood abatement project, with the streetscapes, the lighting and everything," he said. "That whole stretch of Sixth Avenue and that Resting Garden will really do a lot for that area."
The site at Sixth and Sixth is clearly marked on the earliest maps of the city
as the "colored cemetery" or "slave cemetery." A 2011 archeological study using ground-penetrating radar failed to indicate any physical evidence of graves, but the consultants were convinced that it is the cemetery site.
"There's no doubt that Block 45 (the site studied) in the original city plan was designated as the city's first black cemetery and that it served this purpose for a number of years before it was sold for the expansion of the railroads," said Jeff Gardner, who headed the study for Brockington and Associates of Norcross, Ga. "Despite the fact that we found no definitive evidence, there is a strong oral tradition in the black community that points to the existence and cultural importance of this cemetery."
There is still considerable work planned around the site, which should serve to revitalize what has been a blighted area, Hugley said.
The Housing Authority of Columbus plans to tear down units at the northern end of Booker T. Washington Apartments and replace them with newer, more upscale units. Then the portions of BTW facing Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive will be razed to make way for commercial use.
"I think that area is really starting to come together," Hugley said.
Last year, the Housing Authority put forward a plan that would have moved some of the displaced BTW residents into the adjacent Liberty District, which is centered on the historic Liberty Theatre. But stakeholders protested, and the $33 million plan was quashed.
Hugley said attracting commercial investment to the all-but-vacant Liberty District will be a challenge with little to no residential activity in the area.
"Commercial follows rooftops, and the initial plan that we had for the Liberty District was to put some rooftops in and around the Liberty District, but that just didn't work out," Hugley said. "It is what it is today. The Housing Authority plan didn't work out and they've moved on. So we've got to come up with another game plan, and I think we will get there eventually."