I pulled my car through the cemetery gates and a volunteer waved me forward.
“Park anywhere that’s not on top of someone,” he said.
The paved path through Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama, is narrow. Built in 1871, the path was wide enough for a horse and carriage, but not for the cars that would become commonplace over the next half century. As the city’s historic cemetery, Oak Hill is home to many of Birmingham’s founders, captains of industry, politicians, war heroes, and, later, Civil Rights leaders, as well as everyday people. The cemetery is a cross-section of humanity.
Rivulets of sweat ran down my back as I stepped out of the car and into the cemetery’s chapel where the volunteers gathered to meet before the tour groups arrived. No one would know my sweating wasn’t from the five layers of Victorian bustle skirt I wore in the Alabama summer humidity. I was sweating because I was terrified of being in a cemetery.
It was 2011 and I was a college junior, and the preceding four years had been marked by the deaths of several of my classmates. From high school to college, between the car crashes, suicides, and drug overdoses, five people I’d known––all young like me––had died. Though none were my best friends, they were people I talked to regularly in passing and had classes with. Not to mention our many mutual friends who were much closer to the deceased than I was and whom I comforted through their grief. I was more upset about these classmates dying than my own grandmother’s death. I knew everyone died eventually, but I reasoned that old people are supposed to die––not young, healthy people who are full of life and potential.
It felt like Death’s cold hand was drawing closer, plucking off one young person at a time, warning that I was next. Death anxiety-fueled panic attacks plagued me multiple times a day. Hyperventilating, beads of cold sweat at my temples, I couldn’t stop wondering, Could I die right now? I’d wonder if the car passing in the other lane would swerve to hit me. If the tree limb hovering over the sidewalk would crush me as I walked under. If my old dorm building would collapse and trap me in the rubble. If one of Alabama’s notorious tornadoes would fling me skyward.
Living my life felt like Final Destination, where I had to be vigilant to avoid the Grim Reaper. Against all logic, I figured that Death couldn’t possibly take me if I expected it, so I thought about dying constantly. And that’s how I let my friend Wilhelmina Thomas talk me into being a cemetery tour guide at the historic Oak Hill Cemetery.
Despite what it sounds like, tour guides don’t show future corpses to their eventual resting places. Instead, we take groups of curious people around from headstone to headstone where volunteers dressed as the cemetery’s famous (and infamous) residents would speak a monologue as if they were that person. It was like a roving outdoor theater production, both entertaining and educational.
Most of the volunteers were graduate students in history from the nearby university and they knew their characters well. One guy named Jeff played Charles Linn, a banker, industrialist, and Confederate Navy captain who lent his name to a city park––one where in the wake of George Floyd, Jr.’s murder a Confederate monument was finally toppled. Terri, who was getting her PhD in history, was the envy of us all: she played Madam Lou Wooster, brothel-owning madam who pivoted to nursing during a cholera epidemic that nearly wiped out the nascent city. When the wealthy fled, Lou and her girls nursed the impoverished people who couldn’t afford to leave. Birmingham wouldn’t exist without the madam and her women of ill repute. Renee played Emma Hawes, a woman murdered by her husband, along with their two young daughters, because Mr. Hawes sought a younger bride. He was apprehended before he could marry his intended and a rioting crowd of 2,000 gathered outside the county jail to demand his hanging––an event that made the pages of Harper’s Weekly.
While many of the cemetery’s white residents have been portrayed in tours and written about extensively, the same is not true for Oak Hill’s Black population, so Wilhelmina has dedicated countless hours to ensuring that the cemetery’s Black residents are remembered with compassion and care. Through playing Black cemetery residents such as Hattie Hudson (founder of the Sojourner Truth Club, co-founder of the Colored Federated Women Clubs and the First Congregational Church in town), Harriett Phillips (who was 100 when she died in 1888), and Anneth England (a restaurateur) on the tours and leading tours that focus primarily on the Black people buried at Oak Hill and in the city at large, Wilhelmina has made sure the cemetery’s Black population is as much a part of the city’s history as the cemetery’s white residents.
That first day I came to volunteer for the cemetery tour, Wilhelmina took me around Oak Hill, pointing out the kinds of things you can’t learn about the cemetery from a Wikipedia article.
“That mausoleum over there?” she pointed. “The engraver mixed up the birthdate and the death date so it looks like he died before he was born.”
“What happened here?” I asked, indicating a stone slab covering a grave. It had been broken into three large pieces and the middle was sunk in. If I bent down close and had a flashlight, I might have been able to see inside.
“That…” she sighed, “Time is taking its toll. Now we have to keep the stray dogs out of here so they don’t come sniffing around and run off with the bones. And watch your step.”
I tried not to think about accidentally stepping on a grave and my foot falling through the earth right into someone’s coffin.
The breadth of monuments astounded me, even as I shook in my fear of the cemetery and my eventual place in it or somewhere like it. The marble obelisks of the wealthy, the modest limestone engraved stones of the middle class, and the small slabs that were hardly more than bricks sunk into the ground of the poor. Then there was Potter’s Field, a mass grave where there were no markers and the poorest of the poor were piled one on top of the other.
As much as there was to look at on the ground, I found myself gazing upward at the towering trees speckled throughout the cemetery too.
“They’re magnolias,” Wilhelmina explained, “and there’s a reason it’s illegal to plant them in cemeteries nowadays.”
She gestured to the roots, which bunched up from the ground like arthritic fists, thrusting the graves nearby upward––sometimes even above ground. The drainage system that ran throughout the cemetery, which was innovative for its time, had seen many of its pipes crushed from magnolia roots.
A plane flew overhead and I remembered how close the cemetery is to the airport.
“If a plane flies over on your tour, just stop talking,” Wilhelmina explained. “They won’t be able to hear you and you can make a joke about ‘strange metal birds’ to stay in character.”
I nodded, taking mental notes, the entire time thinking: I can’t die in a cemetery, right? The irony would be too much. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?
Then Wilhelmina pointed out the many headstones for babies and small children, some with lambs carved into the monument to mark the innocence of the lost child.
The Victorians knew suffering too. They understood the fragility of young life and death striking when children were so full of life and potential. I suddenly understood why Victorians were so obsessed with death––they were trying to ward it off in the same way I was. I found it oddly comforting.
I took my tour group from headstone to headstone and told them general facts about the cemetery while dressed in period costume. The groups ranged from ten to twenty people depending on how many showed up at a given time and I was so focused on keeping them entertained and encouraging them to donate to the historic cemetery’s upkeep that I forgot to be afraid. I caught myself marveling at the beauty of this cemetery on a hill, the artistry of its monuments and mausoleums, and the passion of the volunteers who kept it from being forgotten.
A decade later now, I’m free of my death anxiety and Wilhelmina is in her twelfth year of giving tours through Oak Hill Cemetery and has extensive knowledge about Birmingham’s history, especially the many Black residents who played a major part in the city’s growth but seldom get the credit they deserve.
Wilhelmina’s path to the cemetery started at an unlikely place: science fiction conventions where she cosplays.
“About 2006, we started getting steampunk at the cons, which is Victorian meets tech,” Wilhelmina explained. “Later, one of my friends posted on Facebook that if anyone has a vaguely Victorian costume, would you volunteer for this cemetery tour. She’d been helping get me on panels at the cons, so I tried to reciprocate.”
Wilhelmina saw doing the cemetery tour as a favor to a friend, but she didn’t know many of the other volunteers and was worried they wouldn’t want her to participate because she’s Black.
“I was sure I was going to get there and they were going to say ‘we don’t need you’ or ‘you can run registration,’” she said. “But I got there and they asked me to do a character. At that point I didn’t even know African Americans were buried in the cemetery.”
Oak Hill was the original city cemetery and although it wasn’t technically founded until 1871, there were already burials being done on the land, including for deceased Black people.
“The majority of the Black people in the cemetery were business owners, pastors, and started churches,” Wilhelmina explained. “When we’re looking at the Black people buried at Oak Hill, in the late 19th century, they’d have been the elitist. They were defined by the color of their skin and by how much money they had. The Black people who are buried there were very well educated, spoke more than one language, and were trying to build a community.”
Wilhelmina discovered this in her research by finding out that there were already designated Black cemeteries in Birmingham, which meant something made the Black residents of Oak Hill want to be buried there in particular.
“There were already established cemeteries that got abandoned. Did they think their part of the cemetery was going to be maintained? Did they consider themselves city founders? Was Oak Hill the cemetery closest to the neighborhood they lived in?” Wilhelmina said. “Those are the kind of questions we have to ask to understand their thought patterns.”
Oak Hill is an active cemetery, with burials still taking place. One of the more recent Black residents is the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader who died in 2011.
“When we go up to Shuttlesworth’s grave and we walk past Sloss’s grave, I as a Black person don’t have anything good to say about him,” Wilhelmina said, speaking of James Sloss, an industrialist and founder of the steel mill, Sloss Furnaces, which still adorns Birmingham’s skyline. “Much of his wealth was built on convict labor. When you start looking up the slave codes in Alabama, then the convict labor system, you understand how we get to Shuttlesworth. Then you understand when I talk about Shuttlesworth’s work with the NAACP and how many times his house got bombed because of it.”
Some might view Wilhelmina’s historical research and tours as depressing. People have questioned why she revisits this trauma, but for her it’s personal.
“As African Americans we’re not used to seeing our stories told and mythologized,” she said. “These stories need to be told. We didn’t inflict this trauma on ourselves.”
Wilhelmina seeks to give Oak Hill’s Black residents a voice by making people who attend her tours think about the system that oppressed them and how that system functions.
“Ask yourself what part of the story is left out, what doesn’t make sense, how did we get from one place to another place, and what happened in this gap in time. A lot of white people don’t ask themselves those questions because they don’t have to,” Wilhelmina said.
White people are also largely unconcerned with having their graves defaced, but after George Floyd Jr.’s murder, Wilhelmina worried Shuttlesworth’s grave, as well as other Black graves in Oak Hill, might be vandalized.
“The cemetery has Confederate and Grand Army of the Republic [Union] monuments and during the summer of 2020 white supremacists came into the cemetery for Confederate holidays to put up their flags and walk around with their long guns. I went up every day to check Shuttlesworth’s graves to make sure it didn’t get damaged,” Wilhelmina said.
Oak Hill Cemetery is more than a relic of Birmingham’s past––it’s a mirror to the present and a window to the future. Who is remembered and how is as relevant now as it ever was.
“What I’m trying to do is make these people human,” Wilhelmina said. “Make these communities come to life.”
It’s hard to be afraid of the cemetery when there’s so much life within it. The cemetery’s tagline is “Love Lives In This Place” and thanks to people like Wilhelmina, there’s an abundance of love alive among Oak Hill’s dead.
Volunteers lead walking tours on the second Saturday of every month. Learn more and get tickets on Oak Hill’s website.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born, Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Their essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, The Normal School, Heavy Feather Review, and others. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out from Belt Publishing in fall 2022. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.