New online portal honors African American WWI soldiers at historic Atlanta cemetery

By Steve Bransford

Oakland Cemetery is a microcosm of Atlanta history. Examining the lives of individuals buried at the downtown site provides a window onto the families, institutions, and social forces that have shaped Georgia’s capital since the cemetery opened in 1850.

There are some well-known individuals buried at Oakland — author Margaret Mitchell, Mayor Maynard Jackson, golfer Bobby Jones — but most present-day Atlantans probably wouldn’t recognize the vast majority of names of the more than 70,000 people buried there.

Seeking new ways to extend its educational outreach, the nonprofit Historic Oakland Foundation has partnered with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) to create a prototype for an interactive online exhibition.

The new website, Oakland Cemetery History, debuts with content that honors 10 African American World War I veterans buried at the historic cemetery, sharing new insights into the lives behind the names on tombstones — William Burney, Wendell Thomas Cunningham Sr., Mary Davenport Cooper Harris, Roderick Badger Harris, Allen Page Lightner, James Edward Tate, Maynard J. Wartman, Hugh Henry Wimbish, Christopher C. Wimbish Jr., and Olin Wimby.

The new website focuses on the veterans’ lives to help illuminate public understanding of the war and the interconnected histories of Oakland Cemetery and Atlanta. The website’s February launch coincides with the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in the Great War  as well as this year’s Black History Month theme, “African Americans in Times of War.”

ECDS, which managed the creative and technical dimensions of building the site, tapped the expertise of two historians to provide the scholarly context:

  • Pellom McDaniels serves as curator of African American collections in Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. He has written extensively about African American involvement in World War I and adapted some of his material for the website.
  • D.L. Henderson, a member of the Historic Oakland Foundation Board of Directors, is a cemetery historian, genealogist, and preservationist whose research and writing focuses on the intersection of history, memory, and culture in African American life. She provided biographical information about the 10 veterans featured on the website.

The site project team developed three primary guidelines that shape the prototype:

  • The scale was intentionally kept small. The goal was not to produce a comprehensive resource, but rather to develop a template that can be easily reproduced for future projects.
  • The project needed to be more than a repository of data points, and instead provide scholarly context about the 10 veterans, their connections to Atlanta, and the overarching events of World War I.
  • The site was built on open source tools, allowing the Oakland Foundation or any historic cemetery to build similar web exhibitions with relative ease.

The project represents a new partnership for ECDS and the latest initiative of the Historic Oakland Foundation to interpret and share the history housed within the cemetery’s grounds.