Packed into an 8th grade classroom at Clarke Middle School, a troop of adults congregated in efforts to pool time, support, and resources for what began as an Eagle Scout project using GPS to identify gravesites.
This meeting would grant one with the opportunity and heightened drive to form a coalition that would bring awareness and dignity to one of Athens secret, Brooklyn Cemetery (formerly Bethlehem Cemetery). With the prospect in hand, Linda E. Davis would go on to support this cause for nearly eight years.
Also a member of the Clarke County School District Board of Education and an adjunct instructor at Athens Technical College, Davis has been involved with Brooklyn efforts since 2006. It was then that she founded the Bethlehem Cemetery Society. Her motivation to become involved stemmed from more than a classroom discussion, though. It was personal.
In a home with limited funds, Davis’ family could not afford headstones for her deceased grandparents, Andrew and Lucy Harris Jones. Both were buried with no grave markers in the now 132-year-old Brooklyn Cemetery, one of Athens first primarily African-American cemeteries tucked behind Clarke Middle School.
“My grandparents are buried in the cemetery among the hundreds or perhaps thousands who have no grave marker,” Davis said. “It is out of a sense of duty and remorse that I am driven to make this final resting place one of dignity and pride for those interred therein.”
Along with the board of trustees, Davis and co-founder Karl Scott went on to find the Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery (FOBC) agency, the service organization charged with the cemetery’s upkeep. It is here that Davis spends a great deal of her time restoring beauty to the cemetery.
On clean up days, Davis can be easily distinguished as the leading woman, stalking in the woods to gather litter, giving tours of the expansive lot that is the cemetery and enthusiastically telling the story of her grandparents and her aspirations for Brooklyn Cemetery to a diverse group of volunteers.
These volunteers come from a number of organizations and clubs affiliated with Athens as well the University of Georgia. UGA organizations such as Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity volunteer with Davis frequently and participants have spoken of how the contagious passion of Davis has affected them.
“Linda is one of the sweetest, hardworking people that I know, and her determination and passion for the cemetery drove me to want to come back again,” said Destiny Levant, a volunteer of Phi Sigma Pi. “She is of small size but has the biggest heart of anyone that I know.”
Onyale Donloe has become so touched by the amount of effort that Davis displays at these open clean-up days that she reached out to Davis to see how she could become more involved with Davis and the FOBC.
Donloe, a fourth year biology and anthropology major and Spanish minor, started volunteering at the beginning of her sophomore year after seeing the opportunity on the Hands on Northeast Georgia website.
After falling in love with the history behind the site, the people and the site itself, Donloe was named the UGA Campus Volunteer Liaison of the FOBC where she works hard to take some of the pressure off of Davis as she has already done so much.
“Mrs. Davis is a pillar in the foundation of Brooklyn Cemetery,” said Donloe. “Her dedication to her work and this site is beyond honorable. She is not one to settle, and say, ‘This is good enough.’ She strives for better and the best. You can see this is in the plans that she has for Brooklyn Cemetery and the time she dedicated to see these plans take place.”
When she isn’t touching the lives of volunteers on clean-up days, Davis is focused on the future of Brooklyn Cemetery. After working with Meriwether Rhodes- a volunteer of FOBC- to locate the names of over 800 people buried in the cemetery unmarked, Davis is now moving on to a major restoration plan.
This plan- designed by Katherine Melcher, an assistant professor in the College of Environment and Design, includes installation of granite-edged footpaths, a chapel, special veteran grave markings and more.
With a packed schedule already, Davis will never grow tired of Brooklyn Cemetery.
“I am busy by upbringing,” said Davis. “I can still hear my parents say, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”