As the only formally established cemetery in the city during the first three decades of its existence, Oak Hill became the final resting place for many of Birmingham’s earliest citizens. Among the earliest burials are many of the victims of the deadly cholera epidemic that, in tandem with the effects of a national financial panic, nearly destroyed the fledgling city in 1873. The impact of the epidemic, in particular, was out of proportion to the actual death toll; as historian Leah Rawls Atkins wrote, “The reputation of the city suffered, and although 128 people died, the country imagined 10 times that many had perished.” Virtually overnight, the city’s population dropped from over 4,000 to fewer than 2,500, and it decreased steadily for several years afterward; at its lowest point, during 1878, it would fall to around 1,200.Within Oak Hill’s boundaries, reminders abound of the industrialists and financiers, iron and coal barons and business founders whose names still adorn the city’s streets, historic structures and civic institutions. Four of the 10 investors who comprised the Elyton Land Company are interred at the cemetery, along with two governors of Alabama, seven mayors of Birmingham, and scores of doctors, lawyers, educators, bankers, merchants, elected officials and others who contributed to the city’s growth over the years. In family plots not far apart, both marked by impressive obelisks reminiscent of the smokestacks that came to define the landscape during Birmingham’s first quarter-century of growth, are the two men another eminent Alabama historian, W. David Lewis, unequivocally called “Birmingham’s greatest founding fathers.” Though neither were among the 10 investors in the company that officially founded the city, there is no disputing that Birmingham would not exist without John T. Milner and James W. Sloss. An engineer by trade, Milner was the first to envision the rise of a great industrial city at the foot of Red Mountain and its rich stores of iron ore. He was closely involved with the Elyton Land Company, and as the builder of the railroad that made the development of Birmingham possible, outmaneuvered another group that wanted to control the area’s mineral deposits but not build a city to compete with their interests in Montgomery and Chattanooga. Sloss was an industrialist and plantation owner who made a fortune before the Civil War, and after it became a leading proponent of railroads as the key to Alabama’s future. He maintained an active interest in plans for the new city of Birmingham, and at a moment when it appeared that the Elyton group had been bested despite Milner’s placement of the critical rail crossing, acted unilaterally to secure an agreement with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad that cleared the way for the city’s founding. Up the hill from the resting places of Milner and Sloss, in the heart of Oak Hill, is a small, brownstone mausoleum that overlooks the modern skyline of downtown Birmingham. Here rests Charles Linn, a onetime sea captain who became a merchant and industrialist and opened Birmingham’s first bank in 1872. One of the foremost proponents of the new city’s potential, Linn directed before his death in 1882, “Bury me on the high promontory overlooking the city of Birmingham, in which you men profess to have so little faith, so that I may walk out on Judgment Day and view the greatest industrial city in the entire South.” Today, that inscription adorns a plaque affixed to Linn’s mausoleum by the Linn-Henley Charitable Trust. That Milner, Sloss and Linn were visionaries is indisputable. Equally so are their positions in antebellum culture and their devotion to the Southern cause during the Civil War, prior to the founding of Birmingham. Linn volunteered his nautical skills to the Confederate navy, and both Milner and Sloss were — like all of the other eventual founders of the city — slaveholders, and each put his railroad and industrial acumen to use in the service of the Confederacy. The founders and early leaders of Birmingham were men of 19th century sensibilities, whose attitudes and outlook shaped the development of the city for decades. By the latter half of the 20th century, a new type of leadership emerged, giving voice to the moral imperatives that guided Birmingham out of the darkness of racial segregation and set it on the path of progress. The leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. A trusted ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Shuttlesworth began confronting Police Commissioner Bull Connor and the forces of segregation following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. He founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights after in 1956, after the state of Alabama outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His work climaxed with the historic demonstrations in the spring of 1963, which helped awaken the nation to the need for action on Civil Rights. Shuttlesworth died in 2011, recognized as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, and is buried at Oak Hill. In addition to its illustrious occupants, Oak Hill is the final resting place for thousands of lesser-known names, the working men and women of all backgrounds and stations in life whose toil built and sustained the South’s first great industrial city. Among their numbers are more than 1,500 whose remains lie in the picturesque hollow in the southwestern section of Oak Hill — the potter’s field where the city’s impoverished and unclaimed were laid to rest until 1936. Not far from the potter’s field is the original African-American section of the cemetery, its very existence an enduring reminder of Birmingham’s segregationist past. Among the numerous black citizens who purchased lots in this section were: Arthur M. Brown, a pioneering black doctor who settled in Birmingham in 1894, and in 1914 served as president of the National Medical Association. Brown died in 1939.Arthur Harold Parker, an educator who became principal of Birmingham Industrial High School — the city’s first high school for black students — in 1901. Parker served in that role until his retirement in 1939. He died later that year, and soon after, the school was renamed A.H. Parker High School, the name by which it continues to be known today, as part of the Birmingham City Schools system. William R. Pettiford, pastor of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church from 1883 until 1893, and later co-founder and president of the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, the first financial institution in Alabama owned and operated by blacks. In Birmingham’s early years, Oak Hill was distant enough from the primary business and residential areas that some thought it too far outside the city to be a good cemetery location. By the 1890s, the population of the booming city was spreading steadily in all directions, including to the north, where it surrounded and grew well beyond the cemetery property. New cemeteries were established in various parts of the city and surrounding areas in the early 1900s, and the regularity of burials at Oak Hill had begun to slow. By 1910, the cemetery was showing signs of neglect, and had become a dumping ground as well an open pasture for horses and other northside livestock. Recognizing the need to arrest the cemetery’s decline and maintain it for future generations, several families petitioned the State of Alabama, and in 1913 were issued a charter for the Oak Hill Memorial Association. The Association assumed management of the cemetery from the City of Birmingham, a role it now has maintained for 106 years — and counting. Since its inception, the Oak Hill Memorial Association has demonstrated steady stewardship and dedication to the perpetual care of the cemetery’s gravesites, grounds and infrastructure. Among its key accomplishments are:
Establishing an endowment to help ensure adequate financial resources for the cemeteryMaintaining a base of support among lot owners and other interested parties and groups.
A regular program of terracing, planting and erosion control.
Sound management of cemetery records, including digitization and protection of:
Family historiesMaintenance and repair records.
Fundraising for construction of administration building (1928.)
Monument and lot restorations.
At the time of Birmingham’s founding, the original acreage of Oak Hill Cemetery may have seemed adequate in size. As the City boomed and expanded, Oak Hill Became landlocked by development, and the first lots were mostly sold by 1910. Other cemeteries opened near the turn of the 20th Century (Elmwood ca. 1895, Forest Hill, ca. 1906) and Oak Hill began to suffer neglect. Oak Hill Memorial Association was organized and incorporated in May 1913, as a perpetual corporation.
The purpose of the Association is to look after, beautify, improve, and maintain Oak Hill Cemetery. At the time of the Association’s founding, the living, whose dead were buried in Oak Hill contemplated with anxiety the potential future of the cemetery as unkempt, uncared for, and desecrated.
Although the City of Birmingham maintains ownership of the cemetery, Oak Hill Memorial Association has managed the property for well over one-hundred years. Throughout the year, Oak Hill Memorial Association sponsors historical tours, preservation workshops, and other special events. You can help to support the Oak Hill Memorial Association’s mission by becoming a member.