Communities of Oconee Hill


African American Section

In the American South, the remnants of the oppressive and violent system of racial segregation can still be found in the landscape.  Among those spaces reserved for strict racial segregation were the cemeteries.  The Oconee Hill Cemetery stands as a testament to the racialization of the South, even in death.  Originally, the main cemetery for Athens was the Old Athens Cemetery, which is located on Jackson Street.  However, in 1856, Oconee Hill was constructed to combat the overcrowding of the Old Athens Cemetery.  From the time of its inception, Oconee Hill was segregated, not only by race, but also by class.  It was split into three primary class sections – first, second, and third, costing $50 per plot, $25 per plot, and $10 per plot, respectively.  Additionally, there were plots set aside for those who could not afford one.  These free sections are now classified as the Pauper Cemetery and the African-American Cemetery.  While plots were afforded to those who could not pay for one, headstones were not.  Therefore, both the Pauper Cemetery and the African-American Cemetery are lacking in markings.  The African-American section has just two headstones, both pertaining to the same family – the McCleskeys.  However, there are no existent records of anyone else buried in the African-American section.  Any records that may have existed burned in 1896 when a fire destroyed a large majority of the Oconee Hill Cemetery records.  Despite the lack of records, however, there is indication that there are many people buried in this section as it is documented that the cemetery was at capacity by the 1890s [2].

With little specific information on the African-American section of Oconee Hill, itself, further information on the historical context of the cemetery must be drawn from other accounts of segregated cemeteries.  Throughout the segregated south, burial sites were vital spaces of African-American communal identity in light of their lack of agency in other public spaces.  In a period of significant racial marginalization and division, cemeteries became important physical spaces for African Americans in the south [3]. However, racism did not exist solely in the South, as African-American Union soldiers were often not laid to rest beside their fellow fighters. Combat elements of the U.S. army were kept completely segregated until the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. Even then, they were often not allowed to fight alongside Americans, and were forced to fight in the French army [9].

Therefore, it is likely that the African-American section of Oconee Hill was a place of significant cultural and communal identity for the African-American community that it served [4]. Generally, however, African-Americans were buried on the farms or plantations where they lived and worked, even after the Civil War.  Therefore, the majority of blacks in Athens were liked buried on independent land, rather than in major cemeteries.  For those blacks pre-Civil War who were not buried on farms or plantations, the majority in Oconee Hill in the period following its creation [5]. Total separation of blacks and whites in independent cemeteries likely did not happen until the Jim Crow era.  While Jim Crow laws were not largely enacted until the 1890s, custom separated the races in the American South for decades prior.  Cemeteries, along with schools in Georgia, began to experience complete facility segregation starting in approximately 1872 [6]. For example, one of the major African-American cemeteries in Athens is at the Gospel Pilgrim Church, whose structure and cemetery were founded in 1882 [7].

By the 1970s, many white areas rapidly changed into predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Two major civil rights decisions became the catalysts of change for this "ethnic turn-over": The Civil Rights Act of 1964, redlining of the banks, a practice that barred African-Americans from securing mortgages. This was greatly curtailed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Though these things helped progress segregation within cemeteries, graveyards such as the Greenwood Cemetery in Waco, Texas were not formally de-segregated until 2014, when a chain-link fence separating the black and white sections was formally removed. In many places in the American South, lingering signs of racism still plague many facets of society, with the cemeteries being among the most blatant [8].  


[1] Erwin, Howell C.  Historical Sketch of Oconee Hill Cemetery: With Supplementary Information Relating to its Operation (1946). Athens, GA.     

[2] Chastine, Kevin, Wendy DeVaughn, and Laura Kraul.  A Retaining Wall Analysis for Oconee Hill Cemetery (2001).  

[3] King, C.. (2010). Separated by Death and Color: The African American Cemetery of New Philadelphia, Illinois. Historical Archaeology, 44(1), 125–137. Retrieved from  

[4] Clough, E. (2015). In Search of Sunken Graves: Between Postslavery and Postplantation in Charles Chesnutt's Fiction. Southern Quarterly, 53(1), 87.

[5] Hester, Al. Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: An African-American Historic Site (2004).  The Green Terry Press: Athens, GA.

[6] Hatfield, Edward A.  Segregation (2015).  New Georgia Encyclopedia.  Retrieved from:

[7] Hester, Al. Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery: An African-American Historic Site (2004).  The Green Terry Press: Athens, GA.

[8] A Tale of Two Centuries. Red River Historian: History of Where the South Meets the West. Retrieved from

[9] Miller, Barbara. “Segregated cemeteries: A remnant of a not-so-distant past.” Observer-Reporter: Washington Co. 12 July 2014. Retrieved from

The Children of Israel

The Jewish Community in Athens was founded by citizens of Filehne in the Posen Area of Prussia, present day Wielen, Poland. In 1872, Founder Moses Myers along with other leading Jewish Athenians, Casper Morris, David Michael, and Gabriel Jacobs, petitioned the Superior Court of Clarke County for a charter of incorporation for the Children of Israel congregation. In 1873, the Congregation then purchased a plot of land at the intersection of Jackson and Hancock Streets and purchased their plot in Oconee Hill Cemetery as well. The men listed above, as well as their families, laid the foundation for the Jewish community in Athens. To fully understand the origins of the Congregation and their burial plot, these families and their stories must be told.
The proclaimed founder of the Congregation was Moses Myers, who was born in 1833 in Filehne, Prussia. Myers opened a “Dry Goods Emporium” on College Avenue in 1858. His allegiance to the Confederacy was suspect to some Athenians, because he did not serve in the Army during the Civil War. He had an injured leg and was accused by some people of rubbing it with a brick to keep it irritated so as not to be drafted. He was thus taunted with yells of “Bricks!” by some citizens. He was also the treasurer of the Fire Engine Company in 1889. Moses Myers passed away on May 24, 1896 and was interred in the Children of Israel plot of Oconee Hill Cemetery.
In addition to Moses Myers were other important members of the Children of Israel. Gabriel Jacobs, also from Filehne, came to Athens before the start of the Civil War. Jacobs played an integral role in the development of the synagogue by acting as an unofficial minister when needed. During the worship services, Jacobs lead the congregation by reading important scriptures and conducting prayer. Jacobs’ profession entailed the manufacturing of military caps for soldiers. Jacobs died on January 2nd, 1896 and was laid to rest at the Children of Israel plot in Oconee Hill.
As time progressed and the Civil War came to an end, the Jewish community in Athens continued to flourish under the leadership of a few key figures. Caspar Morris, among others, established a strong presence in local business through his dry goods store, which was located on Broad Street. Morris was also a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. He fought in the 16th Georgia Infantry for four years, earning esteem in Athens along the way. Julius Cohen, originally from South Carolina, also owned a dry goods business in Athens. In addition to being a merchant, Cohen was a fireman who advocated for the funding of the Fire Department. As time went on, Cohen became the president of Athens Savings Bank.
Another prominent Jewish citizen to note was Moses Michael. He was known later in life as “Mr. Buddy” throughout Athens. Michael was born in Jefferson, Georgia in 1862 and relocated to Athens in 1865. He graduated from the University of Georgia at the age of 16, making him the youngest graduate ever at the time. He opened his dry goods store with his brother, Simon, in July of 1882 and it proved to be extremely successful. “Mr. Buddy” was also the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Old Athens Club, and Vice President of the Athens Savings Bank, which he founded with Myer Stern in 1892. Moses Michael passed away in 1944 and was interred in a granite tomb in the Congregation plot.
As time progressed, a new generation of leaders would shape the direction of the Athens Congregation. Milton Lesser, Jacob Bush, and Harold Hirsch are some of the most notable predecessors to the first generation of the Congregation. Milton Lesser came to Athens in 1912 and established residence in the Wolfe’s Boarding House on Hancock Street. Lesser ran a successful mens clothing store and was an active member of the congregation, where he served as its president in 1943. Jacob Bush was a newcomer to Athens as well, arriving in 1915 with his family. While in Athens, he established Bush Jewelers. Harold Hirsch was a 1901 graduate of the University of Georgia and a successful Atlanta attorney. He was best known as legal counsel and Vice President of Coca-Cola. The law school building at the University of Georgia was named in his honor, Hirsch Hall. These men led the Athens Jewish community into the 20th century and laid the foundations for the community we see today.
In The early 20th century there was a brief schism over how to practice Judaism in Athens. The Children of Israel congregation began adopting reform Judaism, which is a less traditional version of Judaism. As a result of the reform, many traditional members of the Jewish community in Athens were discontent. Moses Michael broke away to form the “Russian Jewish Congregation”, which was far more Orthodox in nature. This occurred in 1914, which was right around the same time as the construction of two family mausoleums for the Michaels and the Morrises. This disagreement was short lived and the 38 families that broke away rejoined the congregation. Following this reconciliation, Moses Michael was elected president of the congregation in 1920. The Jewish community would continue to grow in the early 20th century, with members of the congregation running a wide array of businesses throughout Athens. For example, Selig Bernstein ran the Commercial Bank and his sons ran a furniture store. Dr. Sigmund Cohn, a refugee of Nazi Germany, also became the first Jewish member of the UGA faculty. After Dr. Cohn, there were many more Jewish faculty members who would make great contributions to academic life at the University of Georgia.
After World War II, the small Jewish community in Athens would see itself double quite rapidly. Ari Kofino and Fina Kofino, immigrants from Bulgaria who were members of the community, would move to Elberton and run a ladies garment factory. Fina’s brother Robert Schindel would move to Athens in 1953, and would run a textile factory until his retirement. In the 1950s and 1960s, a radiologist named Israel Berger moved to Athens, GA. Also in this same time frame, Athens, GA saw its first Jewish dentist. In more recent years, the Athens Jewish community is largely associated with the University of Georgia where before no members of the Jewish community were allowed to work at the University at all. Today, members of the Jewish community in Athens are deeply involved in local politics, and make a vital column in the present-day Classic city.



Women of Oconee Hill

Life for Women of Athens, Georgia

Athens, Georgia, known for its diversity and culture, was founded in the rolling Piedmont of northeast Georgia along the Oconee River.  This location allowed textile manufactures to thrive in the 1820s since it could be powered by the river and supplied with cotton by plantations nearby. Prominent residents of Athens would include mill owners, vendors, and college professors. In addition, wealthy aristocrats and planters would come to the city with the purpose of educating their sons. There was quite the variety residing in and around Athens, meaning that women would play a variety of different roles. For example, there was the planation wife who was expected to keep the house clean, care for the kids, manage slaves, and more. Women of lower classes would be expected to either work as a servant to another family or preform factory work. Therefore, it would be reasonable to believe women played a significant role in the cotton mills in Athens. In the 1860s, the slave population made up close to half the Athens population. Female slave occupations included washerwoman, wet nurse, cooks, and servants to children. Many, however, would work in the cotton fields. A diversity of women would call Athens, Georgia, home and help turn the city into what is today.  


Women Buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery

Various women are buried in Oconee Hill cemetery. One example is Clara Ella Hill, who passed away at the young age of 23. Clara was married to William Cunningham, a banker and a planter in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Although married life was short, she was able to spend many years with her large family. Her headstone proclaims she was a Christian and that “living and dying she was the Lord’s.” Another women buried at Oconee Hill cemetery is Mary McKinley Cobb, who passed away at the age of 82 after a long illness. Mary graduated from the Lucy Cobb Institute, a secondary school in Athens for young women. In 1885, Mary wed Judge Howell Cobb, who had been a confederate army captain. Mary was an active missionary for the Presbyterian Church, teaching Sunday school and writing poetry. Mary Dorothy Lyndon is also buried in Oconee Hill cemetery. A vastly educated woman, Mary was the first woman to receive a degree from the University of Georgia. She was appointed Associate Professor of Education and Dean of Women at the university and was able to implement a number of programs benefiting women; however, her career would be cut short when catching a fatal case of pneumonia at the age of 46.

Through the Arch: An Illustrated Guide to the University of Georgia Campus
By: Larry B. Dendy

The Red and Black Obituary for Mary Lyndon



Women’s Health Problems

Since healthcare practices were still very limited in the nineteenth century, women suffered from epidemic illnesses like smallpox and tuberculosis, in addition to painful and oftentimes fatal pregnancies. According to the University of Toledo Libraries, women in particular were very vulnerable to misdiagnoses because “it was commonly believed that most physical ailments of women were caused by their sexual organs or mental disorders, resulting in painful, sometimes lethal treatments.”

Many diseases were rampant in the nineteenth century, affecting men and women alike. Tuberculosis was endemic and cholera was epidemic. Health problems of women — and fatalities as well — generally had to do with childbirth and violence. Work-related conditions also posed problems, such as phossy jaw, “an incurable necrosis caused by exposure to phosphorous” (Victoria and Albert Museum).

Any mental health issues would be attributed to “hysteria,” and were mistreated. This callous view of women’s health problems led to a societal “view of females as weak, fragile, and childlike” and that it “served as both cause and effect, creating generations of repressed, suffering women made worse by harsh treatment” (University of Toledo Libraries).

Rest was the main form of treatment for any ailment, whether it was physical or mental. The lack of correct treatment resulted in many premature deaths for women, men and children alike. Still, however, women predominantly died in childbirth.


Women in mourning

Women of the Victorian Era were largely responsible for setting standards for mourning and “facilitated the links between private and public space.” Mourning in the 19th century American South was mostly a series of class distinctions. While men wore similar mourning clothes across classes, women had more options for showing signs of wealth as dresses, veils, parasols, and other accessories could be purchased in a variety of materials. Etiquette manuals and magazines prescribed the appropriate dress and behavior for mourning and women followed these rules very closely. This was particularly true of elite women in the antebellum South who participated in all levels of mourning, including full, half, and light mourning with the appropriate fans, parasols, and even black-bordered stationary. Mourning correctly was important for social standing because the length and level of mourning depended on the relationship to the deceased. For example, a widow wore all black clothing for full mourning for two years. Half mourning allowed the widow to wear grey and lavender or black and white. In addition to mandated clothing for mourning, it was also unacceptable for a mourner to attend social events during the first six months of mourning.


Ann Schofield, “The Fashion of Mourning,” in Representations of Deah in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture, ed. Lucy E. Frank (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 157-171.



Women in childbirth

Childbirth mostly happened in the home, with the assistance of a midwife, female family member, or neighbor. Those of assistance would also stay with the family for a few days following the birth. A physician would only be called if a severe crisis arose during the birth.

Abortion was common and it is estimated that in the 1840’s, one in every thirty pregnancies was terminated by abortion. However by 1880, it was considered illegal in the United States in most cases with the primary exception being “necessary to save the life of the woman.” Caucasian urban women were the most able to have a physician’s help for an abortion. Rural and non-white women were much more likely to depend on herbal or mechanical means. Over the course of the 19th century, the average American woman gave birth to six children, not including children lost to miscarriages and stillbirths.

In 1847, a new era in childbirth began as ether and chloroform were discovered as pain relievers and anesthetics. There was a fair amount of controversy surrounding this discovery for many decades, because women were expected to be in pain because of the “curse of Eve.” At the same time, humanitarians and medical practitioners advocated for moral and technological advantages for controlling pain in childbirth.

Children of Oconee Hill

Children’s Education

Public education during the 1850’s and 1860’s in Athens, Georgia was not a priority for the average school-aged child. In fact, if it was necessary for the children to work in the fields, they were not required to attend school. During this time period, public schools were comprised of multiple grade levels together in a small, one room building. Although education was not a priority and children attended school for fewer years than school aged children today, the majority of children progressed rapidly through the grades. For instance, the majority of children were reading, at what would be considered today as a college level, by the fifth year of school. On the other hand, the children from wealthy families were privileged in terms of the quality and type of education they were given. Typically, wealthy children attended academies from the age of thirteen through the age of twenty. These academies offered rigorous and varied educational experiences and often the children boarded at the academy whereas local children were day students only. The families who sent their children to these academies paid tuition and boarding fees if necessary. The students who boarded were actually the exception rather than the rule. Additionally, at most academies, both boys and girls attended, but they were usually separated. There were, however, schools that were only for girls or only for boys. For example, one of the most prominent all girl schools in the United States during this period was located in Athens, the Lucy Cobb Institute.



Murder of Children

In 1923, the Banner-Herald published a front page story on the rising prevalence of child murders. Detective Ellis Parker, known as “Sherlock Holmes of New Jersey” reported that child murder had tripled in the past decade. The article argued that these murders could predominantly traced to parental unfitness in the forms of child negligence and filicide. Two cases of child murder occurring in the South demonstrate this phenomenon. In 1893, a well digger found a newborn baby girl drowned in a well in Alabama. The parents of the child were labeled as the chief suspects and an award was issued for their arrest, although little information aside from their race (white) was provided. In 1902, a Louisiana father murdered his two children, both under the age of two, by crushing their skulls while their wife was outside of the house. Some children also fell victim to hate crimes, such as the young black boy who was killed on a Georgia plantation by the seven and thirteen year-old sons of his mother’s employer. While the 1923 article hints at the role that mental illness may play in these murders, it also suggests that their symptoms and treatment were poorly understood at the time. The article also considers the high frequency of unresolved murders or “murder mysteries.” These were attributed to improper handling of evidence (including corpses), a lack of compliance to protocol in investigations, and a failure of investigating officials to coordinate their efforts.

"A Well Digger’s Discovery.” Weekly Banner, May 16, 1893. Accessed April 16, 2016. Athens Historic Newspapers.
"An Awful Crime.” Weekly Banner, April 18, 1893. Accessed April 16, 2016. Athens Historic Newspapers.
"Child Bogy Now Murder Terror; Sleuth Blames Unfit Parents.” Banner-Herald, October 15, 1923. Accessed April 16, 2016. Athens Historic Newspapers.
"Father Murders Children.” Weekly Banner, January 10, 1902. Accessed April 16, 2016. Athens Historic Newspapers.