Future of Oconee Cemetery
Oconee Hill’s age is part of what makes it so beautiful. The rich history that has built up since 1856 adds life to the unique cemetery. Some parts of it will inevitably need restoration though, and this needs to be done in the least invasive way as possible. Certain stones and grave markings must be repaired if descendants ask for such. The processes of restoring gravesites is very tedious, so it only should be done when agreed upon between the Friends of Oconee Hill and the family of the deceased. The roads also are in need of a restoration. In order to accommodate all ages of people wanting to walk throughout the cemetery, the walkways must be ridden of cracks and potholes. Finally, the area near the river also needs to be reinforced. Currently, many of the gravesites are in danger of being washed out during floods. A barricade along the river would suffice and could also add to the appearance of the site if designed correctly.
What to do with certain sections
In June 2013, Oconee Hill was added to the National Register of Historic Places with “state level” significance, a designation which allows for tax credits and qualifies the cemetery to receive special federal grants. These grants are important to affording maintenance of the site—the Friends of the cemetery only have net funds of around $140,000—and in April 2016, they received their first grant of $10,710 to manage trees in the cemetery and reduce invasive species. According to a 2014 study of the cemetery by the Chicora Foundation, Inc., the continuity of the grounds hinges on treating the area as a business and clarifying the relationship between the trustees and the city for upkeep. In terms of the specific sections of the cemetery, their future depends on who is left to advocate for them. In the case of the Jewish section which is maintained by the synagogue from which the intered were members, this is not an issue. For the factory section, which was started by a now defunct and bankrupt company, and the pauper sections, maintenance falls back on the trustees, and erosion and moles are an issue. The African American section is likely that with the most unknown future. Reflecting efforts in other university towns though, the future of this section will likely include some degree of tracing back the relatives of those buried. At Clemson, a marker is being placed at a nearby cemetery to commemorate slaves linked to the university, and at Georgetown, a massive effort is underway to trace families of 272 slaves sold to maintain the university’s liquidity. For Oconee Hill, similar care to the African American section would require greater involvement from the university and recognition of its ties to UGA, including the fact that the cemetery was designed by a UGA professor and houses university presidents.
Oconee Hill Cemetery is placed between the Carr’s Hill neighborhood and the University of Georgia campus, laying in the shadow of Sanford Stadium. It is has two entrances with the western one located on East Campus Road with no protected pedestrian access, the other entrance at the end of Carr Street is permanently closed, likely to reduce the chances of deterioration and vandalism by removing it as a potential thoroughfare for automobile traffic between US 78 and the heart of campus. While preserving the monuments, the complete lack of traffic is also a missed opportunity for the community to enjoy the cemetery’s function as a beautiful park. Improved pedestrian access can be created in many ways. First, by means of a crosswalk leading to the cemetery from the sidewalk on the campus side of East Campus Road would promote involvement from the university community by decreasing the risk of crossing through busy traffic. A partnership between the cemetery and Athens-Clarke Leisure Services would open the cemetery up further to the community if the city had the ability to expand the North Oconee Greenway along the river to the cemetery.
Alternative Uses for Oconee Hill Cemetery
The opportunities for alternative uses of a cemetery are seemingly endless, though one must consider the interred and what is perceived as respectful. Oconee Hill Cemetery is centrally located near the University of Georgia’s campus as well as downtown Athens which, combined with its sprawl and proximity to the river, make the cemetery easily accessible to tourists and others. The Sexton’s house has already been used to host a wedding, and this trend should continue while also incorporating the Wingfield Chapel located just beyond the recently restored bridge. Advertising this unique event option on social media as well as travel magazines would place the cemetery in front of alternative and “destination wedding” couples. In addition to weddings, the cemetery could participate in events that already take place annually in Athens such as Twilight bike races and a 5K run that takes place the morning of Twilight. Obviously, the entire cemetery could not be utilized for the run, but the front entrance and gated rear entrance are connected by a fairly flat and straight road. For a uniquely Oconee Hill run, perhaps a Halloween 5K run that coincides with the annual Athens Wild Rumpus Halloween Parade would create a memorable experience for runners, their families, as well as those who are donning costumes and would enjoy a good spook. A barbeque gathering at the Sexton’s house following the run for people who bought tickets could serve as a fundraiser for the Friends of Oconee Hill foundation.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Historic Preservation Division. "Georgia Communities to Receive Federal Historic Preservation Grants." News release, April 12, 2016. http://www.georgiashpo.org/node/2277.
"Oconee Hill Cemetery." National Register of Historic Places Program. May 22, 2013. https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/13000291.htm.
Sams, Cathy. "Clemson Launches Effort to Tell Its Full History, Slavery Included." The Lancaster News, April 17, 2016. http://www.thelancasternews.com/content/clemson-launches-effort-tell-its-full-history-slavery-included.
Swarns, Rachel. "272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?" The New York Times, April 16, 2016. 272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?
Trinkley, Michael, and Debi Hacker. Chicora Foundation, Inc. Report no. 557. February 2014. http://www.chicora.org/pdfs/RC557 - Oconee Hill Cemetery Final.pdf.