A visit to Green Acres Cemetery is like walking through a black history hall of fame.
Some of Columbus' most renowned black pioneers are buried there, as well as hundreds of families with deep roots in the city's storied past.
Names engraved on headstones include that of Dr. Thomas H. Brewer Sr., a physician and civil rights leader assassinated in 1956; Mildred L. Terry, the city's first black public librarian; Charles E. Huff Sr., a prominent funeral director; John L. Sconiers Sr., founder of the first and only black bank in Columbus; the Rev. Thomas W. Smith, the first president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and John Henrik Clarke, an internationally renowned educator and historian.
Last month, the tradition continued when Jo Jo Benson, the city's beloved R&B music legend, was laid to rest at the burial ground, which sits on a Schatulga Road hillside overlooking a breathtaking vista.
Today, the cemetery is an integrated resting place for people of all races. But its origins are steeped in the rich history of Columbus' black community.
"Prior to Green Acres Cemetery, most black churches had their own cemetery," said J. Aleem Hud, a local member of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, a national organization that made its annual pilgrimage to the site a few weeks ago. "What the cemetery gave our community was a memorial atmosphere, privately owned, that gave us a decent place to bury our honored citizens and loved ones. They elevated the burial of our African-American ancestry here in Columbus."
Louise Less, president and owner of the cemetery, said that's exactly what her father, George H. Less, intended when he founded the cemetery in 1953. Born and raised in Frankfurt, Germany, he escaped the Holocaust with his Jewish parents in the late 1930s and settled in a segregated Columbus. After marrying a New Yorker and raising chickens on a nearby Schatulga Road farm, George Less purchased the 66 acres that now make up the cemetery.
"When he came (to America) after fleeing religious persecution, he came south and was quite shocked at the discrimination against the African-American people during those years," his daughter said. "He saw a need in our community to provide a serene perpetual care cemetery. So he developed this land, but he had to do it one section at a time.
"He went to all of the black churches and also knocked on doors to get the word out that he was going to have a beautiful cemetery that they could be proud of, not just burying their loved ones in the country where the grass was grown up and there was no upkeep," she added. "He really was in disbelief that people could be discriminated (against), even in death."
Prior to that time, there had been two city-owned cemeteries for black residents, said Johnnie Warner, director of the Columbus Black History Museum. The first cemetery was started in 1828 at Sixth Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets as the city's first official cemetery of the interment of slaves and free-persons of color. In 2014, a resting garden was placed there with signs highlighting black history events of the 1800s.
The second burial site was the Porterdale Cemetery, where the oldest marked grave is dated 1836. Among prominent black residents buried at Porterdale are Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, one of the country's first blues vocal recording artists, and William H. Spencer, a late 18th century and early 19th century educator. Yet the city's cemetery hasn't had the best reputation for burying black residents with dignity.
"Green Acres Cemetery was brought about because of the neglect of the city toward Porterdale Cemetery," Warner said. "George Less, he saw the need for something better."
Less said her family has developed a strong relationship with the black community over the years. Some families didn't trust the postal system, so her father went door-to-door to pick up payments, sometimes $1 or $5 a month, until a family plot was paid for. Some family members are now in their 80s and 90s, Less said, and they recall her father sitting on their porches talking to their parents about life and death. Less said there are now more than 12,000 people buried at Green Acres and the site has become a community treasure.
"What happened is over the years it built up; that's why you see all these family monuments here because families have purchased their spaces together," she said. "It's a legacy; it's a passion that we have to know that this is the way we've been able to make a difference in the community."
Less said some people visit the cemetery for information about their families, and she has it all on record.
"I remember even those I haven't seen in many years," she said. "I can tell them where they lived and they will bring up what my father meant to them."
Less said her father died in 1994. She runs the cemetery with the help of her husband, Ron Hale, and her son, Ben Hale, who is now vice president of the business. She said 33 acres remain undeveloped, and the family looks forward to carrying on her father's legacy.
In the month of February, for Black History Month, the cemetery conducts an annual "Tour to Remember." A balloon is placed at each gravesite as a memorial.
"We feel that everyone that is laid to rest here has a story to tell," Less said. "Everyone is important and their families meant a great deal to us, and still do."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.