Ever have the best intentions of doing something but keep getting derailed? That’s the story of my wish to visit Atlanta’s historic South-View Cemetery.

Those intentions might have stayed just that had it not been for fellow “hopper” and author John Bayne. He’d bring up going there once in a while since he’s writing a book about South-View but something always came up. Over the summer, we found a Friday that worked and I picked him up in front of the King Center before we headed out.

This is a photo from John's book signing at Westview Cemetery from October 2014. Cemetery hopping with John is a pure delight.

This is a photo from John’s book signing at Westview Cemetery from October 2014. Cemetery hopping with John is a pure delight, even amid the most humid conditions (and ant hills).

South-View Cemetery has a rich history that few Atlantans know about and if not for John, I wouldn’t have discovered it either. I hope to share this local treasure over the next few weeks so more people will visit and learn.

After the Civil War, former slaves and their free-born children hoped to establish a new way of life for their families throughout the South. It wasn’t easy and they faced many obstacles. Those living in Atlanta were no exception.

South-View Cemetery was an answered prayer for those African-Americans wanting to bury their loved ones in a respectful place of honor.

South-View Cemetery was an answered prayer for African-Americans in Atlanta wanting to bury their loved ones in a respectful place of honor.

African-Americans often had to enter cemeteries through back gates and even wade through swamps to hold funeral services. They were told “If you don’t like it, start your own cemetery.” In 1886, they did just that. Nine black businessmen (most of them former slaves) petitioned the State of Georgia for a charter to establish a cemetery and it was granted in April of the same year.

South-View's angel welcomes visitors in front of the cemetery office.

South-View’s angel welcomes visitors in front of the cemetery office.

Today, South-View is the final resting place for many of Atlanta’s African-American elite. Civil rights icons, successful entrepreneurs and influential ministers can be found within footsteps of each other. About 70,000 people are buried at South-View and it’s still an active cemetery, with hundreds of burials a year.

During our visit, I had the honor of meeting South-View’s current president, Winifred Watts Hemphill. She is the great-granddaughter of one of the cemetery’s founders, Albert Watts, Sr. An accomplished attorney, Ms. Hemphill is dedicated to preserving and sharing South-View’s history. You can watch a video of her touring the cemetery here.

Albert Watts, Sr. was born a slave in 1842 but as a freed man, he helped establish South-View Cemetery in 1886.

Albert Watts, Sr. was born a slave in 1842 but as a freed man, he helped establish South-View Cemetery in 1886.

Winnie Watts Hemphill carries on the legacy of her great-grandfather, Albert Watts., Sr. as president of South-View Cemetery. Photo courtesy of the Southern Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association.

Winifred Watts Hemphill carries on the legacy of her great-grandfather as president of South-View Cemetery. Photo courtesy of the Southern Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association.

Thanks to a recently created audio tour, you can learn about some of South-View’s more notable residents. John and I tried it out using my iPhone and found it easy to follow.

Geneva Haugabrooks manged the A.B. Cummings Funeral Home for eight years before deciding to open up her own operation.

Geneva Haugabrooks manged the A.B. Cummings Funeral Home for eight years before deciding to open up her own operation.

The first stop was the grave of Geneva Haugabrooks, an icon in the African-American community. As founder (1929) and owner of Haugabrooks Funeral Home, which is still operated by family, she was one of the early African-American pioneers of Atlanta’s black business community and one of the few black female entrepreneurs on Auburn Avenue.

Mrs. Haugabrooks handed over the reins of her funeral home to her nephews before her death in 1972.

Mrs. Haugabrooks’ nephews took over the business after her death in 1977. Photo from the Haugabrooks Funeral Home web site.

Geneva Haugabrooks was also recognized as an accomplished community leader who interacted with Atlanta’s nationally and internationally-known political figures, and local personalities.

A civil rights pioneer and activist, John Wesley Dobbs was also the grandfather of Atanta's Mayor Maynard Jackson.

A civil rights pioneer and activist, John Wesley Dobbs was the grandfather of Atanta’s Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Our next stop was the grave of John Wesley Dobbs. Often caled the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue, Dobbs was one of several distinguished African-American civic and political leaders who worked to achieve racial equality in segregated Atlanta during the first half of the 20th century.

Dobbs believed African-American suffrage was the key to racial advancement. Hoping to reach a goal of registering 10,000 black voters in Atlanta, he preached the importance of voter registration wherever he spoke. Dobbs also founded the Atlanta Civic and Political League in 1936 and, with attorney A. T. Walden, co-founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League in 1946.

Born in Marietta, Ga. and raised in poverty, John Wesley Dobbs was a major player in the African-American community during the birth of the civil rights movement.

Born in Marietta, Ga. and raised in poverty, John Wesley Dobbs was a key figure in the African-American community during the birth of the civil rights movement.

Dobbs was also the grandfather of Mayor Atlanta Maynard Jackson (1972-82 and 1990-94). In 1994, Jackson honored him by changing Houston Street to John Wesley Dobbs Ave. I was working at United Family Life at the time (located on that street) and remember it well.

The next grave we came to is not on the tour but John stopped me to tell me about it. Without John Harden, Atlanta African-Americans might not have enjoyed several seasons of exciting baseball in the 1930s and 1940s.

John Harden and his wife, Billie, became owners of the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1937.

John Harden and his wife, Billie, became owners of the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1937.

From 1937 to 1949, John Harden and his wife, Billie, owned and managed the Atlanta Black Crackers, the city’s famed Negro Southern League baseball team. Harden owned a filling station on Auburn Avenue and was already well known in the community.

The Atlanta Black Crackers were a popular attraction at Ponce De Leon Park. A large shopping center now sits on that site today.

The Atlanta Black Crackers were a popular attraction at Ponce De Leon Park. A large shopping center now sits on that site today.

Like their white counterparts, the Black Crackers played at Ponce de Leon Park. On days when the white Atlanta Crackers were scheduled to play a home game, the Black Crackers played their games at either Morehouse College or Morris Brown College. Over the years, the team often suffered severe financial setbacks that kept them from playing but they were a hot ticket when they did. The team officially disbanded for good in 1952.

Upon first appearance, the Whitman family plot doesn’t indicate the depth of history involved with the occupants buried there. The largest stone is for the Rev. Albery Allson (A.A.) Whitman and his wife, Caddie. Born into slavery in Kentucky, Rev. Whitman became a prominent African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church pastor and a noted author. During his life, he was acclaimed as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race”.

Front piece and signature from the 1884 publication of The Rape of Florida.

Front piece and signature from the 1884 publication of The Rape of Florida.

A native of Kentucky, the Rev. A.A. Whitman was a respected pastor and author.

A native of Kentucky, the Rev. A.A. Whitman was a respected pastor and author. But his four daughters were much better known than he was in the first half of the century.

While Rev. Whitman was well known in certain circles, the successful entertainment careers of his daughters would at the time far outshine that of their father.

While the upbringing of Mabel (May), Alberta, Essie and Alice Whitman was understandably strict, it included musical training and they often accompanied their father at gospel jubilees at various churches. Some say he taught them dances as a form of exercise. He probably wasn’t thrilled when the three oldest decided to start a vaudeville act in 1899, but the fact that he left them a sizable legacy after his death indicates he supported them.

The Whitman Sisters were unusual not only because they outlasted other black companies, but also because it was solely owned and managed by an African-American woman, May Whitman.

As the daughters of a prominent preacher, the Whitman Sisters might have faced opposition when they started working in Vaudeville shows.

As the daughters of a prominent preacher, the Whitman Sisters might have faced opposition when they started working in vaudeville shows.

Because they were light skinned and sometimes performed in blackface, white audiences thought they were white. The Whitman Sisters started their show business career touring in many white vaudeville shows. They toured in Europe at one point and eventually made Chicago their home base, focusing on black audiences. The Whitman Sisters would become the highest paid black act on the black vaudeville circuit.

One of the few pictures that remain of the Whitman Sisters' troupe. The number of performers in the act expanded and shrank depending on the financial conditions of the times. Photo from Nadine George-Graves.

One of the few pictures that remain of the Whitman Sisters’ troupe. The number of performers in the act expanded and shrank depending on the financial conditions of the times. Photo source: Nadine George-Graves.

May successfully directed and ran the production company that sometimes employed as many as 30 people. In an environment dominated by male white theater owners and booking agents, Mabel stood apart and was dubbed the “Tiger Show Woman”. Her business savvy in negotiating contracts while keeping her show clean and respectable was admirable. Ever a preacher’s daughter, she insisted that all performers attend church services on Sundays.

Alberta (“Bert”) was an agile dancer who worked as a male impersonator in her acts. She handled all the show’s finances and composed much of the music. Essie, a big-voiced singer, was in charge of designing and making the costumes for the group. Her comedy routines were audience favorites.

Alberta (left) often dressed as a man while sister May (right) ran the production with a talented hand. Photo from Nadine George-Graves.

Alberta (left) often dressed as a man for her stage routines while sister Alice (right) wowed crowds with her tap dancing. Photo source: Nadine George-Graves.

Alice, the youngest, was regarded by many as the “Queen of Taps” and performed many dances of the day, including the Shim Sham Shimmy, Ballin’ The Jack and Walkin’ the Dog. Her son, Albert, joined the show as a child and grew to become a talented dancer.

The Whitman Sisters’ fortunes waxed and waned over the decades but thanks to May’s financial planning, they retired to an elegant 15-room home in Chicago by 1940. All had been married a few times by this point.

May died in 1942 while planning the troupe’s next show. Essie (who became a full-time evangelist in later years) died in 1963 from smoke inhalation when the Chicago home burned and Alberta died a year later. Alice died in 1969, having made sure her older sisters were all buried in South-View beside their parents.

Alberta Whitman's marker is entrenched in the soil of the family plot.

Alberta Whitman’s marker is entrenched in the soil of the family plot.

Sadly, the Whitman Sisters’ individual grave markers have not stood the test of time well. They are the temporary markers from African-American owned funeral homes that often remained their only marker since a permanent one was never purchased. I was only able to make out the ones for Alberta and Essie.

Known for her rich singing voice, Essie quit the act in the late 1920s and became an evangelist. She died in the 1960s soon after Alberta.

Essie quit the act in the 1930s and became a full-time evangelist. She died in the 1960s soon after Alberta.

Today, few pictures remain of the Whitmans Sisters and no audio/video recordings of their performances survive. I’m hopeful that someday, a memorial to these four remarkable women will be placed to honor their special niche in vaudeville history.

Next week, we’ll continue our tour of South-View in Part II.

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