I am currently working on two projects with a focus on preserving the metro Atlanta area’s less than alive residents. At Flat Rock Archives in the recently christened city of Stonecrest, I am working to develop content on residents that can be presented in a digital format. I am also working in conjunction with a larger team of experts to create an interactive map of Oakland cemetery in downtown Atlanta. Though both institutions are historic cemeteries with archives, they are each unique institutions that present their own interpretive challenges. Though Flat Rock represents a historic African American community, the archives is just over a decade old. Working within this institution presents its own interpretive challenges, none of which are new in the field of Public History.

Flat Rock is the colloquial name of a historic African American community near the current Arabia Mountain Preserve. The archives have existed as a public institution for just over a decade, though the community and cemetery for which it provides records have roots in antebellum Dekalb County. The cemetery is spatially delineated chronologically. The graves developed organically and likely without an enormous amount of forethought. This form of growth makes the cemetery’s evolution from antebellum unmarked graves to ornate mid twentieth century headstones is evident. Many of the more recent headstones are evidence of economic prosperity in the community. Granite headstones clearly tie the community to the nearby granite quarries, while mid twentieth century headstones reveal the consistency of the community throughout the century. However, the oldest section of the cemetery is less physically defined. This specific portion of the cemetery was used predominantly to bury the enslaved people of the nearby Lyons farmhouse and plantation. Few records of these burials exist, and even fewer physical markers remain to mark these graves.

The lack of historical record on this section challenges the researcher’s method of interpreting the physical space in the absence of a narrative. The challenging lack of sources persists in any research of subaltern studies, but is especially potent in the study of antebellum African American life in the American south. Researchers of this era must be particularly ingenuitive in their search for sources. Where a researcher may typically be able to rely on census data or on an individual’s own letters and diaries, the study of enslaved peoples typically requires a heavier reliance on court proceedings or runaway slave advertisements. Both of these available resources can be evidence of the daily life of a slave. Runaway slave advertisements typically give detailed descriptions of the slave’s appearance, including scars from blatant physical abuse, and court transcripts recorded testimony about a slave’s character, and transgressions. While these resources can be useful for historians, it is important to keep the perspective of the oppressed in mind when using records created by their oppressors.

One option for interpretation would be to gather all possible information about specific enslaved individuals on Lyon’s farm and provide brief biographical descriptions of their stories. This would likely be difficult to do well, and would require a heavy reliance on the community’s collective memory of their ancestors. It would also be nigh on impossible to link specific individuals to their correct gravesite, which is an important component of the project.

Another potential interpretation of the space could rely on the overall narrative of slavery on Lyon’s farm specifically. This would tell a larger narrative that could be accurately linked to a specific geographic location. If done correctly, it could expose the collective stories of all residents of the slave section of Flat Rock Cemetery. However, if it relied too heavily on readily available sources, this interpretation could also potentially privilege the role of slave owners in an institution dedicated to the interpretation of African American life through the ages. The typical interpretation of slaves as a collective unit can also obscure some of the individual agency of enslaved people in the American south. Many historians work very hard to address all of these issues, but it will always be difficult to provide accurate and nuanced interpretation of a historical narrative that has been systematically obscured.

Ultimately, the interpretation of this section will depend on the will of the community. In the field of Public History, decisions about interpretation are typically done in conjunction with the community. This practice is commonly known as shared authority, and basically means that public historians go out of their way to work with community leaders and community members to cocreate a historic narrative. Many SIF projects already follow this model, and collaborate with members of the community as well as members of different academic disciplines to create a coherent narrative. The interpretation of Flat Rock is no different. Director Johnny Waits has established some precedent for interpretation on his own, and acts simultaneously as interpreter and community representative at the archives. SIFs on the project are working diligently to ensure that whatever interpretation is selected for the cemetery is in line with the goals of the Archives and the desires of the community it represents.