The Secret Sanctuary

As noted Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett wrote in Atlanta and Environs, Oakland Cemetery is “Atlanta’s most tangible link between the past and the present.” Helen Davis (M.Ed ’80) and her husband, Ren, have produced a clear and concise guide to Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery with the publishing of their recent book, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide. Opened in 1850 as Atlanta’s first municipal burial ground, “Historic Oakland is a Victorian treasure,” Helen Davis says. Among the many notable Atlantans interred here are author Margaret Mitchell and golfer Bobby Jones.

Interview by Dave Cohen (B.A. ’94)

What is it about Oakland Cemetery that prompted you and Ren to take on this project?

In 2009 when we had just finished being characters in the annual Spirits of Oakland Halloween Candlelight Tour, and we had talked to the director of volunteer services about a poster that we wanted to do of Oakland and she said, “Well, what we really need is a coffee table book.” Ren and I both retired in 2009 and we had written a number of books before together and he chirped up and said, “Oh, that would be great! Let’s do it.” So, out of that late evening conversation we talked with a number of people and it led us to a contact with the University of Georgia Press and they said, “Oakland? We want a book on Oakland.” We had the opportunity to work with a number of people that were authorities on Oakland; different aspects, restoration, history, gardening, symbolism… and so we thought it was more an idea that we would pull together the expertise of so many people and put it into a book form. Two and a half years after we started the project the book was on the market.

 Have you always had an interest in the history of Atlanta?

Well, no. I became interested in the history of the city when I met my husband, who was a history major and a third-generation native Atlantan. He opened my eyes to Georgia history and specifically Atlanta history but especially the fact that we would go out and see the sites. You know, when you walk through Oakland one of the things that’s fascinating is so many names you see that are names of streets in Atlanta. Then you see how some of the familiar family names have often married other well-known family groups. Atlanta was a very small town when Oakland was the first public cemetery and to see some of these names marrying one group after another over and over again was just fascinating.

Are you and Ren  working on another book?

Yes, we have another one we are working on right now. While we were working on the book Our Mark on this Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks, we were in the National Park Service archives looking at photographs of men who were in the CCC and there were some photographs that just kept popping up and we said, “The work of this person was extraordinary,” and we came to learn that it was George Grant, who was the first chief photographer for the National Parks Service from 1929 to 1954. As we searched more to find out about George Grant we came to realize that he was one of those great landscape photographers that very few people know about because all of his work always had the byline of U.S. Parks Service, never George Grant. In our opinion his work is equal to that of Ansel Adams and he was a contemporary of Ansel Adams. As we did more and more research we realized that there was a need for a book about George Grant, and we’re doing a retrospective of his works and including a biography of the man and all the things that he went through when he worked for the Parks Service. We expect to have it out in the fall of 2015 and that will then coincide with the National Parks Service centennial celebration of 2016.

Your book’s introduction has a Georgia State connection as it was penned by (professor of history and Director of the The Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies) Tim Crimmins. How did that come about?

This was an opportunity that came to us through the University of Georgia Press. They had asked Dr. Crimmins to review the book and, in so doing, he was very interested in it and they asked him if he would write the introduction. His knowledge and expertise was a great addition. So, I think it’s exciting that this book has two Georgia State connections.