Unknown citizens memorialized at Watkinsville Cemetery

WATKINSVILLE | With graves that date back more than two centuries, Watkinsville City Cemetery serves as the final destination for a host of Oconee County citizens, many resting in plots with headstones ranging from the simple to the ornate.

But for more than 100 years, a 6-acre tract – known as “Section B” – held the remains of hundreds of unknown citizens, and until just a few years ago, the section was overrun with natural growth, and those interred there were mostly forgotten.

“We really don’t know how many people are buried here,” Sarah Bell, president of the Oconee Historical Society, said. “But these are the … people who did not go through a funeral home, probably didn’t have coffins, were probably black and were definitely poor.”

But Watkinsville native Albert Ward wanted to see those folks recognized, and on Friday morning his vision was realized with the dedication and unveiling of a memorial stone for those buried in Section B.

“Albert’s thought was we need to recognize them somehow. It’s wrong for them to be here with nothing,” Bell said, adding that Tali Stone, past president of the OHS, also played a key role in the area’s revival.

“It’s Albert’s vision we are fulfilling today,” Bell said.

About two dozen people gathered at the cemetery – located on Simonton Bridge Road not far from downtown Watkinsville – to honor the denizens of Section B and to rededicate themselves to ensuring the tract receives the same attention to maintenance as the rest of the grounds. Three years ago, work began to clear the acreage and identify graves and — when possible – those who rest there.

Although Watkinsville Mayor Charles Ivie was quick to point out the city does not own the cemetery — “It owns itself,” he said — he went on to note the city does attend to its maintenance, at a cost of about $4,500 a year.

“At one time, this area that is clean with metal markers was overgrown,” Ivie said, adding that the cemetery itself is older than the city.

“Over the last two or three years, graves have been identified, they’ve been marked and it’s been cleaned up. We’ll keep it that way,” he said.

During the brief ceremony that included the unveiling of the granite structure, Bell said, “Unknown citizens are finally at rest.”

“The purpose of our gathering today is to dedicate this monument, which recognizes and honors the Watkinsville citizens who rest in Section B, but are unknown except to God,” she said. “Today we remember the lives of these mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children who cannot speak for themselves. This memorial stone will remain here to speak for us and them as we guarantee that we will never forget them.”

Ward was among those on hand for Friday’s event was Ward, and he couldn’t help but inject a little levity into the proceedings.

“Well, it’s not the most important day of my life, but it’s certainly a wonderful occasion,” he quipped. “Nobody could ever know how happy this has made me to see this happen.”

Watkinsville natives (and sisters) Vivian Jackson and Grace Guillory – whose parents Romeo and Gertrude Evans are interred at the very front of Section B – were also present Friday morning to give their blessing to the project.

“It’s a wonderful day. I’m proud to be out here to see this monument,” Guillory said.

While Guillory said she’ll be buried alongside her late husband at Evergreen Memorial Park in Athens, Jackson pointed to the graves of her husband, Calvin “Ted” Jackson, and her daughter Melnie Jackson and said she’ll one day join them in Watkinsville City Cemetery.

Ivie also offered a plug for donations for the upkeep of Section B, pointing out that financial contributions are tax deductible.

“Most people judge a town by how it cares for its cemeteries and its streets,” he said. “We are happy to be able to bring the cemetery to the state it’s in now. Is it perfect? No. Will we continue to keep working on it? Yes we will. You can help with your donations if you so choose.”

When asked if Friday’s ceremony was influenced in any way by the recent controversy concerning some two dozen gravesites found near Baldwin Hall in Old Athens Cemetery on the University of Georgia campus, Bell said clearing Section B and erecting a memorial stone has been in the works for several years.

“We got there first,” she smiled. “This isn’t a response to what happened at UGA but it’s an interesting contrast and coincidence. We ordered the stone in January and here it is. We’ve been planning it and been working on the idea for two years. We had to get GPS out here to mark graves and clean up. The process has taken quite some time.”

For more information about Watkinsville City Cemetery, visit www.oconeehistory.org.

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