Penfield’s Historic African American Cemetery

Aerial photographs in the 1930s and 1940s reveal a coherent cemetery in Penfield, Mercer University’s origin campus, even if there were demarcations between the Black and white sections of the cemetery. When Mercer University and Georgia Baptists celebrated the creation of a wall around the cemetery and an endowment to maintain the grounds in 1948, there was still the ability for African Americans in Penfield to bury their dead and tend to their ancestors’ gravesites. The wall, however, became a more significant barrier when through forest regrowth and an intentional disruption of the access road began to make attention and care possible. Add to these restrictive issues the continued movement of African Americans away from Penfield and Greene County as part of the Great Migration, and the gradual reforestation of the African American burial ground caused its place to recede in memory. The last known burial appears to be in 1950, Richard H. McWhorter (1876 to 1950)

Beginning in late 2020, there has been an ongoing effort to uncover the African American section of the Penfield Cemetery. Through the initial work of Mamie Hillman and the Greene County African American Musuem, individuals and groups began clearing the fallen trees from the cemetery. Much of the known burials on the site have been documented on the museum site and Find-A-Grave (there are two cemetery listing for Penfield). In the fall of 2022, however, Spencer Roberts, head of Chandler School of Theology, Emory University, began a concert effort to host monthly clearing days and invited a broad collection of Georgians to participate, some with connections to Penfield but many who were interested in helping reclaim a significant but forgotten cemetery. The King Center for Southern Studies secured Bigman Geophysical to scan the nearly four acres of the cemetery. With clearing ongoing through Fall 2023, the Ground-Penetrating Scan covered 70% of the cemetery. We will finish the scan in early 2024.  The King Center for Southern Studies will work with partners to continue to clear the debris and fallen trees and find an appropriate way to honor those ancestors buried in Penfield who help create and sustain Mercer University.