At sunup, Pine Hill Cemetery opens its iron gates, and the faintly eroded marks of birth and death become visible from Auburn’s dawn. The oldest grave dates back to 1830, and the newest to 2010. About 40 yards away from the tombstones of mayors and Auburn University presidents, and between two great pine trees, lies the burial grounds of slaves.
In the 1950s, over 1,100 graves were cataloged in Pine Hill. A ground penetrating radar on the area conducted by Auburn Heritage Association in 2010 proved slaves were also once buried there. Out of those, only one has a marked grave site, now situated under the shade of a tree.
A 4-foot tall, chiseled slab of marble stands northward beside Hare Avenue. Swirling shades of grey cast a cloudy hue on the grave, and the inscribed name reads “Gatsy Rice.” She is the sole black person with a marked grave in Pine Hill.
According to the 2010 book “Auburn Sweet Auburn: History, Stories, and Epitaphs of Pine Hill Cemetery,” Rice was from New Orleans and came to Auburn in the 1840s, where she was enslaved as a nurse in the Milton family’s house. After emancipation, Rice moved across the street from what is now Samford Hall.
President of the Auburn Heritage Association Mary Norman co-edited the book and spoke of Rice’s life in Auburn with detail.
“She sewed military uniforms for cadets because all students were in the military prior to World War I at Auburn, so she became a seamstress and had her own business,” Norman said.
According to Norman, a man was so impressed with Rice’s work ethic and courage, he had an elegant tombstone built for her grave years after she died.
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The tombstone towers above the pine-straw-covered ground to this
The other graves at Pine Hill are equally maintained in part because the Auburn Heritage Association donated $30,000 for cleanup and $70,000 to put up a fence, which reduced vandalism. Auburn Parks and Recreation Director Rebecca Richardson said she is also determined to keep the historic site well kept.
“We’re in the process of doing some renovation projects there right now that we hope will encourage people to come and enjoy it because it’s a very pretty cemetery,” Richardson said.
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Landscape areas are being put up near the entrance, and the lighting is being upgraded so the cemetery becomes more distinguishable, Richardson said. To further encourage visitation, seating areas will be added near the flagpole, another a recent addition.
Chamelea gardens that once blossomed when Rice was a resident of Auburn are being replanted, Richardson said.
The refurbishing could draw more visitors to Pine Hill and allow people to appreciate the history preserved in the cemetery, not just to see the final resting places of famous city and University figures but also those of black residents who don’t have a building named after them or, in most cases, even a marker with their name on it.
Auburn professor Kelly Kennington is a historian specializing in slavery and the antebellum American South. She teaches a class focusing on African-American history and spoke on the significance of studying this harrowing time in America. Kennington has visited Pine Hill and upholds the importance of visiting such historical sites.
“The larger implications like, ‘Why does this matter? What can this teach us about today?’ are what really get me interested in visiting historical sites,” Kennington said.
A few graves at Pine Hill cemetery have inscribed how the person died, while others, such as Rice’s and some University presidents,’ have a plaque installed by the heritage association describing what the person did in Auburn.
“When you visit a person’s gravesite, you get a deeper understanding of both that person’s story and why it matters,” Kennington said.
A stroll through the cemetery showcases Auburn’s history and its development throughout time. Most of the graves are placed in the middle and southern end of the cemetery.
The pines toward the west and east are planted firm like pillars, each shading the burial ground of slaves from the fervent
“Aged 63 years,” reads the mark placed at the center of Rice’s grave – not an unusual lifespan for the time. The surrounding graves in the cemetery tell similar stories.
At sunset, the light-polluted darkness settles, and the quote fixated on the grave and memory of a former slave fades away into an Auburn night.
“Gone to a bright home where grief cannot come,” the grave reads.
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