Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery
Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery is a historic African American cemetery in Athens, Georgia. It was founded in 1882 by the Gospel Pilgrim Society and was an alternative to small churchyard burials and the Oconee Hill Cemetery. Several prominent figures in Georgia African American history are buried here including Monroe "Pink" Morton, William A. Pledger, and Harriet Powers. The cemetery is currently owned by the Athens-Clarke County government and is unfortunately overgrown, although still open to the public. Community groups routinely make efforts to restore Gospel Pilgrim.
Backstory and Context
The Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery is a historic African American cemetery that was founded in 1882 by the Gospel Pilgrim Society. The cemetery was a major burial place for many black Athens citizens until the 1960s when there was a major downturn in burials. There are no known official records regarding how many people are buried in the cemetery, but Southeastern Archaeological Services of Athens performed a field study on the area in 20031.
There are an estimated 3,037 graves; however, most of the graves are unmarked. There are 502 inscribed headstones, 652 uninscribed headstones, and 365 metal temporary markers. Some family plots have been fenced in2.
Several prominent Athens figures are buried in the cemetery. Monroe “Pink” Morton, the founder of the Morton Theatre, is buried in a family plot3. Madison Davis and William A. Pledger, both leading state political figures during Reconstruction are also buried in the cemetery. The gravesite of Harriet Powers, nationally recognized quiltmaker, was recently rediscovered4.
The original cemetery was 8.25 acres. The land was purchased from Elizabeth Talmadge, the widowed wife of William P. Talmadge, who sold it to provide more money for her children. The deed states the land being purchased was for a “colored cemetery”. The selling price was either $268.50 or $238.50, but the deed itself is damaged and unclear. Later, in 1902, an extra .75 acres was bought from George P. Brightwell5.
There are no known documents regarding who founded the Gospel Pilgrim Society, nor when it was founded. However, the society was one of 29 African American fraternal lodges in Athens by 1912. The group set up life insurance plans for their members. By paying a dime a week, a member could afford the cost of a big funeral, a plot in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, and a guarantee that your family would be financially supplemented by the society after your death. An office for the Pilgrim Health and Industrial Insurance Company was founded on the corner of West Hancock Avenue and Pope street in 1888.
The Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery fulfilled a need for a large African American community cemetery in Athens. At the time of its founding, the only burial options available for the local community were on small farms or plantations where ex-slaves had grown up, small African American church graveyards, or in the worst land in the Oconee Hill cemetery on East Campus Drive. Later, there were other African American cemeteries like Brooklyn Cemetery and Spaulding Cemetery.
After the 1960s, the cemetery fell into disrepair. In 1973, a tornado hit the cemetery, causing damage to trees and headstones. In 1986, the Gospel Pilgrim Preservation Society was founded as a community group to help restore the cemetery. The property was declared an abandoned cemetery after the Springfield Baptist Church next door proved that they had never owned the land6. The property was then given to the East Athens Development Corporation Inc – part of the Athens-Clarke County local government. In 2004, the Georgia Department of Labor gave EADC a $100,000 grant to help restore the cemetery. Later, Project 24 of the 2005 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) spent over $350 thousand on repairs to paths, signage, and benches in the cemetery through 20187. On March 10, 2006, the cemetery was listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places8. There are still community groups that periodically work to clean and restore the cemetery, such as the Friends of Gospel Pilgrim organization.
2Gresham, Thomas H., principal investigator. An Archaeological Survey of Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery. Clarke County. Georgia. Athens: Southeastern Archaeological Services, Inc., September 2003.
3""Pink" Morton, Well Known Negro Is Dead." Athens Banner(Athens, Georgia)February 12, 1919.
4Hester, A L. Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: an African-American historic site. 2004, Georga. Green Berry Press, 2004.
5Hester, A L. Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: an African-American historic site. 2004, Georga. Green Berry Press, 2004.
6Hester, A L. Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: an African-American historic site. 2004, Georga. Green Berry Press, 2004.
7Athens-Clarke County SPLOST. (2005). SPLOST 2005 – Current Financial Status, Project 024 Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery Restoration; EADC. SPLOST. Athens-Clarke County Unified Government.
8National Register of Historic Places, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, Athens, Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, National Register #06000285