Sam Burnham, Curator
Oak Hill Cemetery is not a recent discovery of mine. In fact, I have noticed it in passing all my life. However, I recently made what was only my second visit into the site. Once known as West Seventh Avenue CEmetery, Oak Hill was initially established on the outskirts of town as Rome's first municipal cemetery in 1837. At that point in history the town was brand new. The hill offered an elevation that would keep graves out of the flood waters when the Ooostanaula jumped its banks. Flooded graves have macabre tendencies and it is best to keep them above the waterline as much as possible.
Over the years the city grew and the the passing of locals quickly filled the small hilltop. A new cemetery was established at Myrtle Hill and Oak Hill burials tapered off and finally ceased. What was once the outskirts of town is now considered very much downtown. What was once known as West Seventh Avenue is now known as Riverside Parkway. Neighboring Lumpkin Hill, one of Rome's Seven, was largely excavated to make way for Turner McCall Boulevard. A shopping center sprung up between the cemetery and the highway. Georgia Power installed a substation just across W 7th. Apartment homes were built along the backside of the property. Oak Hill was now encased in a shell of modern development. And in that shell it has been largely forgotten.
I don’t want to suggest that there’s some criminal level of neglect going on here. The city government keeps the grass mowed, the weeds trimmed, and the grounds are clean and maintained. But you can’t help but notice the deterioration and decay. Many of the grave markers are worn with the passage of time. Some of the masonry structures are crumbling.
The people interred here were important in their time. They include one of the city founders, a Revolutionary War widow, and a U.S. congressman. Members of Rome’s most prominent families in the town’s earliest days are buried here. In death, wealth and influence passed on to others and memories of these people faded as those who knew and loved them passed on as well.
The people here are largely forgotten because no one who knew them remains and few people know their stories. That’s how the world works.
The legacy of those buried here is carried on by local historians who care about this place, these people, these stories.
Oak Hill holds for us a metaphor for our history and our culture.
As modernity has grown up around it, access has become limited. It lies hidden in plain sight. None of that “progress” would have been possible without it yet it lies largely forgotten and fading into the past.
”Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” - Fellowship of the Ring
In such an era as this, the preservation of history and culture depends on people who care about it. It can’t be a passive effort. It requires people being active in defending it, loving it, honoring it. It requires us to be engaged. And it requires us to share the stories and traditions that our society is built on.
If our history and culture are an afterthought hidden in a quaint little pocket surrounded by “progress,” then they’re both doomed. We will all be sucked into the abyss of modern American pop monoculture. We will cease to be Southern. We will lose all our uniqueness. We will become something generic and bland. We will cease to be Southern.
I, for one, do not intend on going down that path.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire