Oak Hill Cemetery

Oak Hill Cemetery Oak Hill Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Birmingham, Jefferson County. It was established in December 1871 by the Elyton Land Company as the first official city cemetery of Birmingham. Oak Hill also was the first cemetery in Alabama to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1977. There are more than 10,000 recorded burials within its 22.3 acres, and it is still currently open for new burials.

There are many notable Alabamians buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. Alabama governors Frank Dixon and William Hugh Smith are both buried there as are legendary madam Louise Wooster; civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth; Charles Linn, founder of the First National Bank of Birmingham (now Amsouth Bancorporation); Sloss Furnaces founder James W. Sloss; and industrialist Henry DeBardeleben. Also buried at Oak Hill are Titanic survivor Phillip Mock and murder victims Emma Hawes and her daughters May and Irene, all killed by husband and father, Richard Hawes.

Louise Wooster Grave Originally known as City Cemetery, Oak Hill was designed by civil engineer Col. William P. Barker in the early period of Birmingham’s development. Like most Christian cemeteries up to that time, Oak Hill’s burials were situated with their feet to the east and their heads to the west in accordance with the Christian belief that the saved could immediately face the Son of God when rising from their graves after the Second Coming of Christ. This convention changed during the Victorian era in the 1880s, with burials being laid out around natural and manmade features as the cemetery expanded. Surprisingly for the time, Oak Hill was never a segregated cemetery. All races, religions, and nationalities were buried together. The separate section was Potter’s Field for the numerous poor buried in unmarked graves and for most of the 128 victims of the city’s 1873 cholera epidemic. Louise Wooster, who remained in Birmingham to care for the ill along with women in her employ, was buried at Oak Hill in 1913.

Shortly after the cemetery opened its gates, several benevolent societies and fraternal organizations purchased lots to help those who could not afford to bury their loved ones. The Grand Army of the Republic fraternal organization representing former Union soldiers purchased a lot and erected a monument to those who served the Union in the Civil War. More than 100 former Union and 300 Confederate veterans are interred at Oak Hill. After waves of immigrants began arriving in the area in the late nineteenth century, they began to organize burial societies, as well. For example, the Italian Benevolent Society purchased several lots in 1890 for the many Italian immigrants, largely from Sicily, who came to Birmingham to work in the mining and railroad industries. Other organizations that purchased lots for members include the Elks, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Salvation Army Home, and the Masonic Lodge.

Union Soldiers’ Memorial Oak Hill contains seven mausoleums, all built prior to 1910, the most elaborate of which is the one belonging to Charles Linn (for whom the city’s Linn Park is named), with customized bronze doors shipped from his homeland of Sweden. The original sexton’s office, which was built in the 1880s, was moved in the 1920s to a corner of the property and was later used as a caretaker’s cottage. In 1902, the city raised funds to erect the Policeman’s Memorial to honor officers G. W. Kirkley and J. W. Adams. They were the first police officers in Birmingham killed in the line of duty after arresting two men suspected of robbing the local Standard Oil Company offices.

In 1900, as Birmingham grew, a group of businessmen decided to establish a completely segregated cemetery further from the city center. (It remained segregated until the 1970s.) This new cemetery was called Elm Leaf Cemetery and would later become known as Elmwood Cemetery. These businessmen encouraged the wealthier citizens of Birmingham to choose to be buried in Elm Leaf, which hastened the decline of Oak Hill. As the cemetery fell further into disrepair and neglect, family members of some of the people buried at Oak Hill decided to work together to establish a memorial association, and on May 24, 1913, Oak Hill Memorial Association filed papers to become an officially incorporated entity whose purpose was to clean up, beautify, improve, and maintain Oak Hill Cemetery. The organization repaired terracing and retaining walls and made many other improvements. Oak Hill Memorial Association is still devoted to preserving and protecting the grounds, as well as the history found there, for all to enjoy. It has approval over structures, markers, and other permanent features in the cemetery.

Oak Hill Cemetery Event Flyer By the 1920s, Birmingham began paving its roads, a move that would ultimately change the layout of the cemetery, including the fill dirt being dumped over much of Potter’s Field. Many of the unmarked graves are said to now be at least 20 feet below ground level. Another change that came with the new roads was a shift in burial positioning, with graves now running parallel to the roads rather than in the east-to-west positioning from earlier years.

Burials continue to take place at Oak Hill, and plots are available for purchase with no requirements or rules, although markers must be approved by the Oak Hill Memorial Association. Many public events occur throughout the year at Oak Hill, including an annual Decoration Day, held in the spring, a photography event called “Shoot the Moon” held several times throughout the year, movie nights, and the annual History Tour, with costumed characters and tour guides.

Further Reading

  • Atkins, Leah Rawls. The Valley and the Hills: An Illustrated History of Birmingham and Jefferson County. Tarzana, Calif.: Preferred Marketing, 1981.
  • Cruikshank, George M. A History of Birmingham and Its Environs: A Narrative Account of Their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1920.
  • Henley, Jr., John C. This is Birmingham: The Founding and Growth of an American City. Birmingham: Southern University Press, 1969.

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