Decatur’s cemetery tells of a vibrant black life a century ago

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Sallie Durham (seated) was the matriarch of an influential Decatur family. She is seen here with her daughter, Clara Maxwell Pitts (right), her granddaughter Mae Maxwell Yates (left) and her great-granddaughter Clara Yates Hayley. Photo: Contributed by Clara Axam

By Bo Emerson

When a community is erased, sometimes only the voices of the dead can tell its stories.

That is why people such as Laurel Wilson and Clara Axam spend so much time in graveyards. “Cemeteries tell you a lot,” said Axam. “They tell stories you can’t even fathom, if you’re willing to listen.”

One day three years ago, Wilson, a young, white historian, and Axam, an older, influential member of Atlanta’s black community, strolled through the venerable Decatur Cemetery. They went to meet Axam’s great-great-grandmother, a woman who catered fine parties in Decatur and was known for the beautiful linen and china of her place settings.

Her name was Sallie Durham. Born into slavery at Gov. Wilson Lumpkin’s Athens home, she came to Decatur after emancipation, and started a thriving catering business.

But evidence of her life in Decatur was hard to find. Axam had not seen a photo of Sallie Durham’s face until the previous week. She was just moving to Decatur from Atlanta and was going through boxes in the attic, in an effort to downsize, when she was excited to find a photo of four generations of ancestors. Then, on a neighborhood website, she chanced upon Wilson, a graduate student researching black history.

At their first meeting, Wilson asked her, would you like to see where your great-great-grandmother is buried?

“All I could do is look at her,” said Axam, 70, an attorney who has served in two mayoral cabinets, on the MARTA board and with the 1996 Olympics organizers. “That was the first time I went to her grave. And I have been visiting ever since. I take my children and my grandchildren. For me, it’s like a spiritual moment.”

Read the original story at AJC.com.