A broken-down wrought iron fence and a dozen or so weather-worn headstones only hint at what lies buried in the red Georgia clay south of Chickamauga.
Looking like a small family burial plot in the middle of a cow pasture, District Hill Cemetery is actually the final resting place for more than 100 Walker County residents.
“This should be the first organized black cemetery in this part of the county,” John Culpepper said.
Culpepper, former city manager for Chickamauga, local historian and head of the Georgia Civil War Commission, for years has advocated adding the hallowed ground of this pastoral cemetery to the area’s historic sites.
While they and their era may be long gone, an effort is underway to make certain they — and the part they played in making history — are not forgotten.
“Our goal is to survey the cemetery, mark the graves and add interpretive markers,” he said.
Court documents show the cemetery — possibly the county’s oldest for blacks and former African-American slaves — was once part of the Gordon Lee plantation until being deeded as a one-acre site for “colored people” in the late 1800s by Gordon and Tommy Lee. Their father, James Gordon, had moved to the area about the time of the Cherokee removal, better known as the Trail of Tears, in the mid 1830s and established a plantation at Crawfish Springs, now known as Chickamauga.
In 1915, Joyce Harrison’s grandfather George Washington Haslerig bought the land that surrounds the cemetery.
Born in 1853 and a slave for 13 years, Haslerig was active in the business, social and religious life of Walker County. Upon his death in 1924, Haslerig was buried in a family plot within the District Hill Cemetery.
Donations to help with the restoration and preservation of District Hill Cemetery can be made payable to:
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church- District Hill Cemetery
20 Parrish Circle
Chickamauga, GA 30707
Joyce said the public cemetery was used regularly until the late 1940s, after which it became overgrown, its graves were seldom tended and many of its tombstones were destroyed or stolen. Then, in 1993, Joyce’s late father, Willie Haslerig, researched the names of those buried at District Hill and turned his records over to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, among the oldest black churches in the area.
The cemetery was actively used for about 100 years, Harrison said, and, though there were no hard records, oral histories hinted that perhaps hundreds of unmarked graves were at the site.
Len Strozier, of Omega Mapping Services, this spring used ground-penetrating radar to systematically survey the grassy hillside, located within sight of Pond Springs and Chickamauga Creek that is surrounded by Tom and Joyce Harrison’s farm.
By the time Strozier had finished methodically walking to-and-fro with the radar buggy, rows of small orange flags pinpointed unmarked and long forgotten graves.
“Ground penetrating radar is like a sonogram on wheels,” he said.
Strozier said radio waves penetrate about 10 feet below the surface, but he is most interested in what lies less than seven feet down, roughly the depth of a grave. While walking he watches for “breaks in the strata of the earth” that would indicate a disturbance having occurred at some point in time.
“The body breaks down and creates air pockets,” he said. “That’s how I located 125 graves at District Hill.”
Fewer than 40 of those marked graves indicate bodies were interred in caskets; most were buried in simple cloth shrouds, Strozier said.
Sons of Confederate Veterans are passionate about any Civil War veterans buried throughout the region, he said. And there are direct ties to fighting in north Georgia and its aftermath buried at District Hill.
Culpepper said slaves were employed on the 2,500-acre plantation owned by James Lee and his wife Elizabeth Gordon, and that “more than likely, the Gordon Plantation slaves are buried there.
“There were 22 slaves on the property,” he said. “Other than the five buried in the (Chickamauga) city cemetery, the whereabouts of the others is unknown.”
But the grave of one remarkable man, Mark Thrash, is known and marked, Culpepper said.
“His being buried there is what involved the Georgia Civil War Commission,” he said, noting one of the commission’s tasks is the preservation of Civil War sites and cemeteries.
Born on Christmas Day 1820, Thrash died eight days shy of his 123rd birthday. A slave in Virginia before being relocated to north Georgia, he was in his 40s during the Civil War. Culpepper said Thrash went to war with his master and helped bury Confederate dead after the fighting in and around Chickamauga.
Thrash was conscripted to serve both armies, and it was his service with the Union that earned him a federal pension and his employment by the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park from 1893 until 1921. His home was a cabin located on the Chickamauga battlefield, near where Union Gen. Rosecrans maintained his field headquarters in the autumn of 1863.
Culpepper said a few locals still recall visiting “Uncle Mark’s” at the cabin.
Harrison said the restoration and preservation of the cemetery is a memorial to the many, both known and unknown, who are buried there.
“This is hallowed ground,” she said. “This is our history. Chickamauga wouldn’t be what it was if it wasn’t for the laborers and artisans buried there.”
What is expected to be a multi-stage project began with an assist from state Sen. Jeff Mullis in 2014. He helped make it possible for state prison work details to clear the grounds where slaves are buried.
A grant from the Civil War Commission in 2015 made Strozier’s mapping the cemetery possible.
Fencing, interpretive signage and improved access could be a boost to tourism in the area, according to Culpepper.
“Cemeteries are draws, as is the historic nature of Mark Thrash, and we are trying to save this for future generations,” he said. “There is no telling how many people around here are descended from those buried in that cemetery. No matter how much you think you know there is always more.”
Rev. Hugh Byrd, pastor at Friendship Baptist, said plans have been prepared for eventually placing a granite monument to commemorate those buried at District Hill, both those whose names are known, and those who will forever remain anonymous.
“I put 125 souls back on the map at District Hill,” Strozier said. “Even though I don’t know who they are, there is always something fulfilling about giving dignity to those people buried there.”
Having performed similar mapping services across the country, he said, “Every cemetery has a story.
“If you listen, you can hear it.”