Columbus Council is considering creating a “tranquility garden” on the site of what may have been the city’s first cemetery for black residents.
The park-like setting would be on 1 acre near the intersection of Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue, in an area originally known as the “colored cemetery” or the “old slave cemetery,” according to Deputy City Manager David Arrington, who made the proposal to council at its Tuesday work session.
The garden would be fenced similarly to the old Linwood Cemetery and would feature a walking path, benches and historical markers. The land, which has long been owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad, already has mature trees, but more trees and some additional landscaping would be installed, he said.
The plan for the park would cost about $180,000, Arrington said, adding that the money would come from funds designated from the 1999 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for the Liberty District Redevelopment Fund. The city would also have to negotiate with Norfolk Southern for a long-term lease or possibly a donation of the land to the city.
A recent archeological study of the site turned up no physical evidence of the cemetery being there, but historical data and oral history provide sufficient proof of the site’s significance, Arrington said.
“I think the record is clear that this is one of the two original cemetery sites as part of the original planned city of Columbus,” Arrington said. “It is our recommendation that we honor and respect that and preserve this site.”
The archeological study was performed by Brockington and Associates, archeological consultants from Norcross, Ga. It was headed up by the company’s vice president, Jeff Gardner, who presented the study to council Tuesday.
“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,” Gardner said. “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.”
According to Gardner, in January 1828 the first board of commissioners of Columbus hired a surveyor to map the city boundaries and to lay out its streets, lots and common areas. At that time, two cemeteries were designated, one for blacks and one for whites. The white cemetery, located at what was then the northeast corner of the city, is Linwood. The black cemetery was in the southeast corner, east of Mercer Street, now Sixth Avenue, between Sixth and Seventh streets.
Eight years later, what would later become Porterdale Cemetery was designated officially as the “new cemetery for colored people.”
Gardner said ground penetrating radar could not determine any graves in the area, but he added that could be because of decades of ground compaction by the railroad and burial customs of the day.
He referred to a 1995 Ledger-Enquirer interview with the late Alfonso Biggs, considered in his day the dean of black historians for this community.
“A family would dress up the deceased in nice clothes, them wrap them in brown paper,” Biggs explained. “They would then bury them in paste-board boxes. None of them could afford caskets ...
“Usually something belonging to the deceased would be placed on the pile of dirt. Maybe a vase or a piece of marble. That’s why no one has ever found a tombstone or head marker.”
Gardner also said that as his crew was working on the site, several elderly residents of the area came up to them with stories about the old cemetery.
Councilor Bruce Huff, who grew up downtown in a family funeral business, said all the historical data that Gardner presented was consistent with stories he heard growing up.
In discussing the proposal, Councilor C.E. “Red” McDaniel asked whether the lack of physical evidence should deter the city from spending the money for such a garden.
“Between 1828 and 1836, colored folk were buried somewhere,” City Manager Isaiah Hugley responded. “I’d like to know where in the county they were buried if they weren’t buried there.”