Just east of Newnan’s Courthouse Square lies a parcel of land, wide open except for slim oak trees scattered on a hillside. The land is bordered by a former cotton-mill village, a city park, and elegant 19th-century houses. A narrow path skirts the land close to the road. Cliff and Monique have made this place their life’s work.
Back in 1999, a man who’d grown up in the neighborhood was driving by the unmarked land when he noticed heavy machinery about to enter it. The City of Newnan had sent a crew to create paths through the trees. The man pulled over and told the workmen they couldn’t start digging. He said that as a boy he’d been instructed never to play there. It was sacred land, he said: a burial ground for slaves.
Like much of Newnan’s African-American history, the nature of this land, acquired by the city in 1962, was unknown to many, including the mayor. It appears on a 1923 map as a “Negro Grave Yard”; deeds show that it had belonged to a slaveowner who in 1888 sold it to the Newnan Cotton Mills. When, in 1999, the mayor was alerted to the land’s history, he ordered the work there to be ceased, and later commissioned an archeological survey of the area.
Using ground-penetrating radar, researchers identified 249 graves – all without tombs, just leaf-covered depressions, slightly sunken in the earth. They realized that it was the largest slave cemetery in the South.
Almost 20 years later, Cliff and Monique, two young activists with a group called South Atlanta Progress, were driving by the site. Cliff, who had grown up in Newnan and heard about the land’s history, told Monique who was buried there. “Stop the car, stop the car!” she shouted. The couple then drove up to a shotgun-style house on the property, where a sign read, “The African-American Heritage Museum.” The house was locked, but the sign listed a phone number. They called the number, and one thing led to another. Soon Cliff and Monique were on the museum’s board, and they became the president and vice president of The African-American Alliance, which oversees the museum.
On Halloween weekend of 2018, I met with Cliff and Monique, first to talk, and then to make their portrait. As we walked across the land, being careful not to step into the shallow depressions, the energy coming up through our feet was difficult to take in. It was the most overwhelming experience I’d had in Newnan.Across town, at Newnan’s officially historic cemetery, a Halloween event was taking place. Actors portraying Newnan’s white founders — including 269 Confederate soldiers who did not survive the Civil War — led hundreds of visitors around the stately tombstones. Music played and children danced. Refreshments were served. But over on at the African-American burial ground, all was quiet.
Cliff and Monique, both college students, have built grand visions of what is possible there: First, preservation; then placement on the National Historic Register; and then tourism, research, and the drawing in of scholars from all over the world. They passionately want to bring back to life the enslaved people who are buried there – people who early each morning left where they lived, dug their owners’ fields, laid the bricks for the owners’ elegant houses, and so constructed the foundation of the city. It’s as though the ancestors are calling to these two young people, asking them to finally tell their stories.