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A commemorative plaque marks the entrance to the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, Georgia on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; taylormckenziephotography.com)

On Saturday, Feb. 20, Franklin Residential College will be conducting tours of the historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, a historic burial place for many Black Athenians. The tours will leave at 10, 10:30 and 11 a.m.

The Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, formally known as East Athens Cemetery, was founded in 1882. According to the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, over 3,000 people are buried at the cemetery. Fewer people have been buried there in the past three decades, with the last burial at the cemetery having occurred in 2003.

Over time, the cemetery started to become overgrown, unkept and fewer people were burying their loved ones there. 

“While around 3,500 individuals are buried at the cemetery, only around 1,300 have a grave marker, and only around 500 have a readable gravestone with a first and last name,” said Tracy Lynn Barnett, doctoral candidate and graduate Mellon fellow in the digital humanities, in an email with The Red & Black.

After noticing the lack of upkeep in the cemetery, many Athenians have started to improve the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery conditions by cleaning up the grounds.

Barnett said students at the University of Georgia formed the Friends of Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery and held workdays at the cemetery where they pulled weeds, uncovered gravesites and clearing pathways.

The Athens Death Project works with the Friends of Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery to find the long-lasting results of racial inequalities, investigate the lives of the descendants of those buried at the cemetery and help maintain the cemetery. One person buried at the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery who the Franklin Residential College researched heavily is Monroe (Pink) Bowers Morton.

“He was a former slave with little formal education but quickly became one of the most successful Black entrepreneurs in Georgia. He owned approximately 30 houses/buildings in Athens, including the Morton Building downtown,” said Nicole Powell, member of the Franklin Residential College and Gospel Pilgrim liaison, in an email with The Red & Black. “The Morton building became a central hub for the African American community. Successful Black lawyers and doctors would gather there; cultural performances were held there, and general meetings [were held there].”

The tours will be directed by Ben Ehlers, a history professor and director of the Franklin Residential College at UGA.

“On February 20, our students will welcome the Athens community, with stops highlighting the achievements of Athenians buried in the cemetery,” Ehlers said, in an email with The Red & Black.

This will be the first time the Franklin Residential College students will be hosting tours of the Gospel Pilgrim cemetery, Ehlers said. He said in fall 2020, UGA students helped research the biographies of people buried at Gospel Pilgrim through newspaper articles, obituaries and census records.

Masks and social distancing will be enforced, and the tours will be conducted in small groups.