A new University of Georgia student group has taken on a Herculean task — the cleanup of Athens’ historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery.

The African-American cemetery off Fourth Street, founded in 1882 by freed slaves, contains the mostly unmarked graves of about 3,500 people in its 9 acres.

Its notable burials include Madison Davis, one of the first two black state legislators from Clarke County during Reconstruction; and Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, who built downtown Athens’ Morton Theatre.

Nearly a decade ago, a $350,000 Special Local Option Task Force allocation and a large volunteer effort helped clear away decades of grown-up privet and other invasive plants from the cemetery, which had fallen into disuse and neglect decades earlier.

 

The restoration project won awards from the local Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, but in the years since the undergrowth has crept back, hiding tombstones and paths carved out in the first restoration.

“We want to assure that those buried in Gospel Pilgrim have a place of respect and remembrance,” said UGA senior history major Isabel Mann, who started the group with friend Maritsa Restrepo, a UGA management and Spanish major.

They’ve also started a Facebook page for the group, called Friends of Gospel Pilgrim.

They’ve enlisted other UGA students to help and recently held an information session in a LeConte Hall classroom hoping to recruit more help. They want to draw volunteers not just from UGA students, but the Athens community as well.

Mann had heard about the cemetery from one of her professors as she explored the history of slavery in Athens and at UGA, but hearing about it didn’t prepare her for the reality of Gospel Pilgrim.

“I didn’t even know Gospel Pilgrim existed until Isabel called me,” Restrepo said.

“Getting out there was an eye-opening experience,” Restrepo said. “It’s one thing to hear about it, but another to see it.”

They’ve scheduled a series of work sessions this fall on Saturday mornings beginning at 9 a.m. at the cemetery, including this Saturday. Others are scheduled for Oct. 7 and Nov. 11.

More information is available on the group’s Facebook page.

Writer: Lee Shearer