Ray Mock can remember the “poorhouses” next to the North Fulton Golf Course where he played as a teenage duffer. “Most of the people who lived there were elderly or ‘tetched,’ as we called it—or, as the census at the time cruelly termed them, ‘lunatics,’ ” he says. “They would gather the lost golf balls at night and then try to sell them back to us the next day: ten for a dollar in a strawberry basket.”
Mock, now sixty-two and the operations director for the Chastain Park Conservancy, flashed back to those enterprising characters when he was looking over old maps of the area and noticed a hand-drawn cross. “That’s traditionally a symbol for a cemetery, and it was over a corner of the golf course,” he says. “I’d always heard there were graves here, but I didn’t know precisely where or how many.”
This year, high-tech mapping revealed eighty-six unmarked graves just a few feet from today’s fifth green. These constitute a cemetery that served Fulton County’s “almshouses,” to use the proper Dickensian term. There were two facilities near each other, segregated by race, operating from 1911 into the 1960s, when federal entitlements began to phase out the system for long-term shelter.
“I had a lot of questions,” Mock says, “and I was hoping that nothing offensive was going on, like people playing golf on the graves of black people.” Ironically, the community surrounding this former potters field has become one of the plushest zip codes in the Southeast; the whites-only almshouse is now the prestigious Galloway School, and the dormitory for African Americans holds the Chastain Arts Center.
“I wondered if the indigents were integrated in burial,” Mock says. But racial identity is difficult to determine; most records remain missing, and the remains have decomposed along with any pine box or cloth shroud that held them. When bodies decompose, though, they leave air pockets that can be detected with ground-penetrating radar, which Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services used to find and mark each site.
“It would have been easy to desecrate this cemetery, but the people of Chastain Park didn’t do that,” Strozier says. “The bodies were generally six feet deep, facing the east for the Second Coming—the custom in the Bible Belt—and the golf course was carefully built around it, not over it. It’s one of the more respectful old graveyards I’ve found.”
Researchers have located only four death certificates for the almshouses: three for unnamed African Americans whose bodies were donated to science, not buried at the park site, and one, dated 1922, for L.H. Evans, a seventy-year-old white man.
The conservancy plans to plant wildflowers along the border of the cemetery and erect an interpretive memorial. “Not just an ordinary plaque with dates on it,” Mock says, “but an artistic, vandal-proof glass monument that gives meaningful context. Nobody much cared about these people when they were alive; we want to honor them now.”
This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.