By Daniel Silliman
Chuck Gilbert has been wandering through graveyards, taking down names. He does this on his days off and figures he’ll do it, on and off, for the rest of his life.
Gilbert, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, writes down the names of all the buried men who lived through the Civil War, and then checks those names against a list of soldiers who fought for the seceding states.
In three months of looking through graveyards, late last year, Gilbert found about 145 Confederate soldiers who had been buried in Clayton County and Henry County without any marker noting their role in the war. He put government issued markers at all of the graves.
“I just got to doing this and I just thought, heck, I’ll mark the ones that haven’t been marked,” said Gilbert, who sells semi truck parts in Forest Park. “I’m just trying to give some recognition.”
Each marker weighs about 100 pounds, and has the initials of the Confederate States of America inscribed above the individual’s name and the division they belonged to.
“It just tells whoever sees it, they were there and they did this,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert has marked the graves quietly, and hasn’t gotten much of a response from either the public or the descendants of the soldiers. He did drive by one marker a few weeks later, though, and see that the grave site had been cleaned up and improved.
Gilbert said that maybe the family didn’t know their relative had played that role in history and when they saw that marker, they took a little more notice of their history.
Gilbert’s mother, Barbara Cooper, said she doesn’t know why the graves weren’t marked when the soldiers were first buried, but said they need to be marked.
“It’s just your heritage, darling, like everything else,” said Cooper, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “Everybody has their heritage.”
Clayton County Historian and Historical Society member Ted Key said a lot of families don’t take notice of their ancestors’ role in history. He’s noticed an increased interest, though, and said a lot of separate projects are simultaneously working to document and preserve their piece of the county’s history.
“I’m so worried that some parts of it will not be touched,” Key said. “I don’t want anything to be left out… I’m always worried about that. Always.”
Key and the Historical Society have been working, recently, to document the history of the black residents in the county, which hasn’t received as much attention or preservation work as other sections of the past.
“My main interest has always been for all citizens, not just for the whites, for all citizens in the county, to keep the history alive,” Key said.
The Historical Society just finished three more interviews for their black history video library project, Key said. The project, now in its fifth year, is recording interviews with more than 30 older black men and women, asking them about their lives and experiences in the county.
“Most of them are people who were born in this county and have lived here all their lives. They’re giving us the history of the county and their family from their perspective,” Key said. “This is something they will have left as a legacy.”
There are also projects underway to restore the first black school house in the county, a surrounding graveyard and projects to record multiple family histories.
Much of the area’s native American history has been lost, Key said, because the Creeks left the area in the 1820s and two of the most significant Creek sites have been lost to county development. Creek trading areas and gathering places have been covered up by Lake Spivey and by the Arrowhead Shopping plaza. The Historical Society has been working to preserve what artifacts remain, including a fishing trap on the Flint River believed to have been built in 500 B.C., for the past 26 years, Key said.
The county’s history — black, white and native American — has been largely separate and the preservation and documentation projects are mostly quiet, individual affairs, like Gilbert’s walk through area graveyards or questions asked of an older family member.
“In our history, there wasn’t too much mixing. There was some,” Key said. “At the Historical Society, we’re trying to be a catalyst [for all the different history projects]. Hopefully, we’ll be a place where everyone can go get information.”