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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Geneva Haugabrooks was also recognized as an accomplished community leader who interacted with Atlanta’s nationally and internationally-known political figures, and local personalities.
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.
Dobbs was also the grandfather of Atlanta Mayor 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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. She retired from the act in 1926 to become an evangelist.
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 died in 1963 from smoke inhalation when the Chicago home burned and Alberta died a year later. Alice died in 1969 and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Ill. with her son, Albert. He died in 1950 at the age of 33. The other sisters are all buried at South-View. While I was able to find markers for Alberta and Essie, I could not find one for May.
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. Both are in very poor condition.
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.