For Black History Month last year, I mentioned the cemeteries at Sardis Missionary Baptist Church included grave markers designed by a man named Eldren Bailey. While Bailey did not live in our community, he has had a long-lasting impact on our area through his gravestones.
Born in 1903 in Flovilla, Georgia, Eldren Mathew Bailey received only a third-grade education. He moved to Atlanta at age 13 and worked on the railroad. In 1929, he began creating tombstones for many African American funeral homes, something he did for more than six decades. His work has been found as far north as Cartersville, while other pieces have been located in the Macon area. Each stone is made of concrete, covered with a white plaster front where the name of the deceased, dates from his or her life and the name of the funeral home was inscribed. Some stones have small flower decorations, also made of plaster.
In Kennesaw, Bailey’s work can be found in four cemeteries. Two of these are adjacent to each other near Sardis Missionary Baptist Church. Not all of the individuals in these cemeteries who have his gravestones lived in Kennesaw, as some died in Atlanta and others near Milledgeville. But almost all of them have the same funeral home listed on the stone — Hanley, which now is Hanley-Shelton Funeral Home in Marietta.
Some of the people buried at Sardis led unique lives. Myles Burge, who died in 1961, had 15 children, 33 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, according to his obituary. When his wife, Ethel, died in 1973, the numbers had grown to 39 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Both of their headstones were made by Bailey, as was their daughter’s. The Burge clan was one of several families who had stones produced by him.
The third cemetery with Bailey gravestones is at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wade Green Road near Interstate 75. This church was founded in the 1880s by Henry McNeal Turner, and the cemetery dates to around 1900. Like Sardis, there are several families who used stones made by Bailey, and many used the same funeral home.
The final cemetery is Henderson Cemetery, on top of a hill near power lines on Moon Station Road. Very little is known about its history. According to Mayzelle Hill, who has family members laid to rest there, it originally was the Kilgore family cemetery. It is unknown how the cemetery got its present name, as only one tombstone with the Henderson surname can be found. Six of the 30-odd gravestones in the cemetery were designed by Bailey, but practically nothing is known about their life stories.
As important as his gravestones are, they are not Eldren Bailey’s claim to fame. He began his artistic career in 1945, sculpting art out of concrete in his front yard. His work included depictions of Hank Aaron, the crucifixion and John F. Kennedy. One of his pieces, “Pyramid,” was a memorial to a friend and now is on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. His art was known for its funerary symbolism, including references to African funeral customs.
During his life, Bailey never was widely recognized as an important artist, though folk art enthusiasts did visit his home in south Atlanta, where he kept his sculptures. When artist James Smith Pierce visited in the 1970s, he filmed Bailey and his work, and the three minutes of footage has been made available online by the University of North Dakota. A second interview is offered by the Walter J. Brown Media Archives at the University of Georgia.
Bailey suffered a fatal heart attack in 1987 and was laid to rest in Atlanta’s South-View Cemetery. His gravestone is a large urn made of the same white plaster used on the hundreds of gravestones he produced for Georgia’s African Americans.
After his death, many of his larger artworks were lost. The pieces that were saved have been preserved at art museums across the nation, including the High in Atlanta, the Minneapolis Museum of Art and the Rockford Art Museum in Illinois. Because his gravestones are unsigned, many of these important works of art still are waiting to be found across our area.
– Andrew Bramlett is vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society and an honorary member of the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission.