19th and 20th Centuries
Oconee Hill Cemetery is nationally recognized as one of the most outstanding examples of Victorian cemeteries in the nation. The addition of intricate ironwork and statuary in the 19th century enhanced the cemetery's natural landscape plan.
The history of Oconee Hill Cemetery is closely linked to the histories of Athens and the University of Georgia. Indeed, the first gravesites in Athens were actually located on unused portions of the college campus. It was only because the burial ground had spread close to the dwellings of the president and the university's professors that university trustees urged the mayor and wardens of Athens to create a public cemetery for the community. In 1855, 17 acres of land beside the Oconee River were purchased for $1,000.
The following year a plan for the cemetery's design was adopted, the first lots were auctioned, and management of the cemetery was assigned to a self-perpetuating board of trustees. Augustus Longstreet Hull in his Annals of Athens (Banner Job Office: 1906) lovingly describes the beauty of this cemetery that, at the time of his writing, had reached the half-century mark.
This is one of the most beautiful spots, adorned by nature with forest trees, with vines covering hillsides, clinging to rocks and climbing the sombre pines, while at the foot of the hills the Oconee murmurs between banks redolent with honeysuckle and Jasmine.
By 1896 virtually all lots had been sold, and the need to expand the size of Oconee Hill Cemetery was evident. In 1898 the trustees acquired an additional tract of 82 acres. Less rugged and hilly than the original acquisition, the new ground did not require supporting walls and steps that had been built throughout the old section. However, bridging the 150-foot Oconee River to reach the new section was a serious problem. With the financial aid of the city, a bridge connecting the old and new sections was built in 1899.
It is worth noting that a number of graves at Oconee Hill actually predate the opening in 1856. Many graves have been moved from the Old Athens Cemetery or abandoned family plots and church cemeteries over the years. Since its inception the cemetery has been noted for its policy of acceptance of all races, even during the difficult times of the early 19th century. Unfortunately, the socio-economic status of many African Americans during the 20th century means that some graves are poorly marked, and the loss of early cemetery records due to fire has thus made it difficult to identify many African-American graves.
The history of the cemetery has been beautifully documented in Oconee Hill Cemetery of Athens, Georgia, Volume I, written by Charlotte Marshall, one of the country's most dedicated and knowledgeable historians whose work is devoted to cemeteries.