COVINGTON, Ga. — An effort to place a historic cemetery on a national registry could lead to bigger things for the county-owned facility on which it is located, a historian said.
Newton County is considering applying for grants and working with the nonprofit Preserve Black Atlanta on an effort to place a slave cemetery at the county-owned Gaither’s at Myrtle Creek Farm on the National Register of Historic Cemeteries.
County commissioners recently approved a resolution to allow Chairman Marcello Banes to work with the nonprofit on beginning the process of placing the site on the National Register.
The slave cemetery has remained “untouched and undisturbed for more than 150 years,” according to the county government website.
Banes told county commissioners Sept. 15 the cemetery site is covered with vegetation and fallen trees.
“That cemetery needs some attention,” he said.
Atlanta historian Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, who operates Preserve Black Atlanta, told commissioners she first saw the cemetery site around 2013 after former Chairman Keith Ellis told her about it.
Sims-Alvarado, who also is a history professor at Morehouse College, said sites like this one can help “heal a community” and educate a community about some parts of its racial history.
“This one is very special because I understand its impact,” she said.
Rocks now serve as grave markers for the estimated 150 people buried in the cemetery. However, because of vegetation overtaking the site in recent years, it needs care, she said.
“I hope you understand what you have,” she said.
Sims-Alvarado said grant money is available for preservation of African-American cemeteries that would allow the county to do extensive work to preserve the Gaither’s slave cemetery.
The grants would be used for such items as geophysical surveys to determine how many bodies are there.
She said her role would be principal investigator, which is required in applying for grants for historic structures.
District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards, who represents the area that includes Gaither’s, said he had a “transformative experience” from visiting the burial ground.
“I’m willing to work with you in any way I can to do what you think is best down there to preserve that place,” he said.
However, she also said Preserve Black Atlanta could help the county increase interest in the 256-acre Gaither facility as a historic site for African Americans.
She also said her nonprofit could apply for grants for the cemetery as well as to “expand the interpretation of the Gaither Plantation.”
Those grants include National Park Service funding for historic sites in underrepresented communities, which could provide at least $15,000.
It also could apply for National Park Service funding for African-American historic sites of $500,000 annually.
In response to a question from Commissioner Ronnie Cowan, Banes said the resolution to work with the nonprofit just covered the cemetery and did not include the entire Gaither’s facility.
“We just want to be able to get started,” Banes said.
Commissioner Demond Mason said he believed “education changes the trajectory” of a nation and liked the idea of moving forward with efforts to increase Gaither’s historic value.
The county government has owned the Gaither House and its 256-acre site since 1996 after buying it as part of a larger tract for construction of Bear Creek Reservoir, which the county later abandoned.
The county has leased the facility for such events as weddings and as a movie set in recent years.
It includes the main house built by William Gaither Sr. in 1855, a log smokehouse as well as the Gaither Family Cemetery and a slave cemetery dating to the 1800s, according to information from the county government.